Sunday, September 14, 2014

Arizona Part II: Beyond Chuffed or Lifers For Slick

Scott's Orioles are not known for being the most cooperative members of their tribe. But in Ash Canyon, they are jelly junkies, and it's easy to get quality looks.

I had come to Ash Canyon for two reasons: Lucifer Hummingbird, and geri-birding. It was hot, it was mid-afternoon, so what else is there to do but sit on your ass and let the birds come to you? Unfortunately Lucifer didn't show that day, but decent geri-birding was had.

Cooperative Lark Sparrow, with a bit of an overbite.

Acorn Woodpeckers are often described as being "clownish", which is too bad, because no one likes clowns and everyone likes Acorn Woodpeckers.

It's easy to take Acorn Woodpeckers for granted as a westerner. But just because something is easy means we should embrace it. Familiarity does breed contempt, but this is one of the great charismatic upland birds of the west, and they make everything better.

This young male Scott's Oriole is already a jelly addict. What is the world coming to?

Mexican Jays litter the mountains and hills of southeast Arizona. They are one of my favorite kinds of litter. 

After a night in Tucson, I got my shit together and rapidly lurked down to Florida Canyon, my old home from a few years ago. A Plain-capped Starthroat had been reported there recently, and it would be a solid ABA bird for me. The starthroat and residentish Black-capped Gnatcatchers didn't show, but it was a nice morning of Summer Tanagers, Varied Buntings, Gray Hawk (unusual there) and Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets.

Broad-billed Hummingbird is both crippling and common in the area. Florida Canyon, AZ.

Eventually I decided to hike up canyon, to revisit the Rufous-capped Warblers. Florida Canyon is the only place in the country where this species is reliable, and they have been here for several years now. Encountering no one on the trail was nice, because there are shitloads of birders in Arizona, and you are better off not encountering most of them. Eventually I heard a quiet, unusual song across the stream but could not locate it...I was momentarily distracted by a female Summer Tanager when she did me a solid and landed right next to the singing Rufous-capped Warbler. This is all part of being #7, you see.

It quickly skulked off, but I was happy. A few minutes later my avian company was replaced by a haggard-looking dude with a massive camera set up, his arms covered in cuts. He was sweating profusely, had a thick southern accent and kept calling me "Slick", which I'd never heard before outside of movies. He had obviously been trying really hard to see/photograph the Rufous-capped Warbler, and despite being there for hours had failed up to that point in the morning.

"It used to come into tapes," he said, with obvious disappointment in his voice.
"Well yeah. When everyone is using tapes on a bird, it will tape the bird out", I observantly pointed out to him.

I told him where I last had the bird and he stumbled over to the spot, looking forlornly at the slope that the warbler had previously occupied a few minutes earlier. Eventually he came back to me and said, "Hey Slick. I drove 3,000 miles for this, I'm going to play a tape." I responded unenthusiastically and got the fuck out of there.

There are few heartening things left in this world. One of them is watching a Black-throated Sparrow feeding a fledgling. Try it some time. Florida Canyon.

Later in the day, I rolled up to the Kubo Cabins, former home of the most dependable Flame-colored Tanager in the country. He must have passed away, but he was at those cabins for so many years that he must have had a nice, long, facemelting life...I was lucky to see him for many of those years. Good birds are still to be found there though...the guys I was geri-birding with at Ash Canyon the day before told me about an easy Whiskered Screech-Owl that sat in a cavity across the street from the cabins. It only took a couple minutes to find it, and I was a bit chuffed. In fact, before I knew it, I was beyond chuffed...I was fucking stoked.

This was my Arizona nemesis bird. I have birded the area extensively and have heard countless Whiskered Screech-Owls, but I could never actually see one...I don't count heard-only birds on my life list, so listening to them torture me at night was not going to cut it. And at long last, here it was, in broad daylight, right in front of me...sleeping.

This is one of the sleepier life birds I've gotten. Madera Canyon, AZ.

After the screech-owl success, it was time to take on Proctor Road. Proctor Road had the star attraction: a reliable, accessible Buff-collared Nightjar. Already happy with my victory over my nemesis earlier in the day, I would have been happy with just hearing the thing (I had no experience with them, aside from fondling a freshly deceased one in a shoe box in California...seriously).

As I arrived at the appointed spot, I came upon a familiar face.

"Hey Slick!", the familiar face beamed at me.

Are we in Men in Black? Are you Tommy Lee Fucking Jones? Do I look like Will Smith to you???? I wasn't surprised to see Tapey McGee there, but I was kind of bummed. Fortunately, he took off well before the time the bird was expected to begin calling (who knows why). Despite all of this, I'm glad there are still people out there calling people "Slick".

Having previously done field work in the area, I knew that I could get closer to the bird without getting too close...there was no reason to stick to the road, unless I wanted to be annoyed by other birders. So I lurked off into the bushes toward the nightjar's favored hill and waited. Eventually a birder from New York walked in to the shrubbery as well, and while we chatted the bird began calling. Great success! Shrewdly picking up on the fact that I was wallowing in the mesquite because I was trying to avoid birders, he headed back to the road. If only all birders were so adept on picking up social cues.

After he left, the bird began calling in earnest, and I could tell the bird had moved off the hill and was coming closer and closer. I drooled horribly, knowing that I had a chance of actually getting eyes on the thing. But as the suspense mounted, I heard some other birders pull up on the road behind me. They were not good birders. The nightjar was singing loudly, almost incessantly, and from the snippets of conversation I could hear it was obvious that the new birders had no clue they were listening to it (New York birder eventually pointed this out to them). New York birder later told me that they then asked if they could do playback, New York birder said "no", and they responded by saying they had driven too far and they were going to do it anyway. Sound familiar, Slick?

And so they began blasting nightjar song while the bird was still singing, and of course it immediately shut up. Heads were about to roll. But then the truly unexpected happened...the bird flew right by me, at eye level, and started singing again a couple hundred meters away before shutting up again. Holy shit!!!! It wasn't exactly a crippling view, but I quickly rocketed from chuffed to stoked to something like awe. What luck! I had almost no expectations of seeing it, and I ended up being the only person who saw the bird that night.

The playback dudes left, and I walked further down Proctor Road by myself. It was a beautiful, peaceful night. Soon other night birds began calling...Common Poorwills, a Lesser Nighthawk, an Elf owl, a Whiskered Screech-Owl. Eventually the Buff-collared Nightjar returned to the roadside and started calling, while another bird countersang in the distance. Such nightbirds! Two Buff-collared Nightjars (yes, I am positive it wasn't another birder using playback) and a whole suite of others. It was a good night. It was also my birthday...that night I camped in Bog Springs Campground in Madera Canyon and drank an impressive amount of bourbon.

These are Arizona Sisters. They look like California Sisters. But they are no more California Sisters than I am California Sisters. Madera Canyon.

The next day I hiked up Madera Canyon, all the way to the Carrie Nation Mine, where I don't think I've been before. I had some nice year birds...Red-faced Warbler, Cordilleran and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers...and then it was time to leave. Although I prefer birding southeast Arizona during the monsoons, it was a hell of a trip, and I will be back. If you missed it, here is Arizona Part I.

Crushing songbirds can be difficult, so I recommend crushing other life forms in their stead. From time to time.

Unlike most songbirds, Yellow-eyed Juncos are eminently crushable, which pleases me. They are fearless birds, for reasons that I have only begun to grasp. I also am pleased with how closely they resemble Baird's (of Mexico) and Volcano Juncos (of Costa Rica and Panama), not to mention "red-backed" Dark-eyed Juncos. Madera Canyon.

I watched this junco thrash this lep into little bitty pieces. It was intensely violent and fun to see. Nerd points to anyone who can identify the prey.

Ever since that day, I wake up every morning and am grateful that I am not a medium-sized lepidopteran that dwells in high-elevation springs of the sky islands of southeast Arizona. Junco-bashing must be a rough way to go.

The harmful bellow of a Plumbeous Vireo is truly something to avoid. At least it is uttered more intermittently than Cassin's. Madera Canyon.

For the herpers, here is a Yarrow's Spiny Lizard (I think). Madera Canyon.


  1. Yarrow's indeed, and the unfortunate Lep. looks good, I think, for a Silver Streaked Skipper. Damn man, nice work up there!

    It was painful to hear about the Whiskered Screech, because by time I was back in town the bird was not being seen any more (it did fledge 2 young though, before they all fled the spotlight).

    As you mentioned, most birders in AZ are not worth the getting to know, especially because 75% are in AZ and not from AZ and tend to bring the attitudes you mentioned. At least there are a few sweet birds to get to know. Whenever the time comes to move on to other pastures, I will miss many AZ birds, but there is very little I will miss of the AZ birding scene.
    I enjoyed the post quite a bit, perhaps because I finally don't feel so out of my league in discussing the AZ species and AZ species of birder.

    1. I'm glad a local is in agreement with me on the birder issue. Thanks for the skipper ID.

      Have you not seen WHSO either?

    2. I had the (mis)fortune of seeing a WHSO is similar circumstances to your BCNJ sighting.

      TSO was pretty damn obliging for you though--most other folks I talked to didn't get quite so out-in-the-open looks as he provided you.

  2. Because driving a significant distance somehow entitles one to fuck with the bird he/she came to see. Unfortunately so fucking typical ...I need to remember the bush tactic the next time I visit a stake out.

  3. Silver-spotted Skipper is the unfortunate butterfly.

    1. Thanks Gavin. Didn't know skippers got so large.

  4. Ah what a magical birthday! A new nickname AND some sick birds. Excellent stories, most enjoyable.

  5. Can someone explain to me the concept of "crushing" and "crushability"? I've seen it in a couple blogs now, and just when I think I have a handle on it, the meaning seems to elude me. Why aren't most songbirds crushable? Why are Yellow-eyed Juncos eminently so?

    1. To crush a bird is to photograph it so well that you steal it's soul. I think that's the best way to put it. As you probably know, passerines have a penchant for being small, moving quickly, hiding, and not letting you steal their souls. That said, I have no explanation for why YEJUs dont give a fuck. They just don't.