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My Life’s Birds: #248-276

May 13, 2009
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July 2, 1994 – Cave Creek Canyon, Portal, Az – Can every birder remember their life birdiest day? Probably not. Once you’ve been birding for a while the days string together somewhat. You remember where you were, and you remember the birds, the flashiest ones at least. Maybe the details are hazy, but the feeling that you get, that’s at once overwhelming and completely satisfying, stays. For the most part it’s a feeling you get once, and typically when you’re just beginning to get into birds. As you gain experience you come to accept the birdiness in the world. Those subsequent days are wonderful, but your knowledge is such that you can’t really be completely surprised by the sheer vastness of diversity. It’s not less enjoyable, but perhaps less shocking.

But I wasn’t there yet, and I can remember points of my first shockingly bird-filled day. The campers were split up into three rotating groups to travel to three different habitats with the leaders over the next few days. I was exceedingly fortunate on my first day to be with Rob Day as we headed up the famous South Fork Trail of Cave Creek Canyon. The sun rose to a multitude of oak-pine forest birds at the trailhead. Arizona Woodpeckers and Mexican Jays and Bridled Titmice. Western Wood-Pewees and Painted Redstarts and Hepatic Tanagers. It was almost too much to take in all at once, and then we headed up the path.

It’s funny how in the west that there are new species that fill niches held by birds I was familiar with in the east. Black-throated Gray and Grace’s Warblers instead of BT Greens and Yellow-throated. Dusky-capped and Cordilleran Flycatchers instead of Great Crested and Acadian. Black-headed Grosbeaks replace Rose-breasteds. And all these common species, not difficult to find, but new and different all the same. Not every bird has an eastern counterpoint, however. And one in particular, the species people come specifically to South Fork to find, was awaiting us at a staked out nest hole. Rob stopped us, inviting us to look around, and it wasn’t long until one of us, I don’t remember who, spotted the male Elegant Trogon sitting near an old woodpecker hole in a Sycamore tree not 50 meters off the trail. My memories of the birds I listed above are somewhat hazy. But this one? This one I remember clear as day. That’s the kind of bird a Trogon is.

We were back at the cabin by lunch time, and the rest of the afternoon was spent walking the campground, watching for birds to come by. Regulars in the area included Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers and Bullock’s Orioles (then lumped into Northern Oriole) and Band-tailed Pigeons in addition to the ubiquitous Acorn Woodpeckers. Within walking distance was a private home well stocked with seed and hummingbird feeders that even a short time spent waiting would turn up Lesser Goldfinches, Blue Grosbeaks and Rufous-crowned Sparrows. But the hummingbirds were the best and we found both Violet-crowned and Lucifer Hummingbirds, high on any birder’s wish list for the area. A particularly sharp-eyed camper spotted a Prairie Falcon in the cliff face that was ogled through spotting scopes. And behind another cabin, a roosting Common Poorwill drew us over for lengthy studies.

As if the above wasn’t enough, and let’s face it, for two dozen mad crazy young birders, it wasn’t, we headed out in the evening to the Southwest Research Station, a Smithsonian field station not far up the canyon. I was fortunate to be in the first van when a Montezuma Quail crossed the road, the car behind us missed it. The first bird to greet us was Scott’s Oriole near the entrance, and as we walked up the trail we added Hermit Thrush in a pine grove and Plumbeous Vireo (another armchair tick years later) foraging in a willow. But again, the hummingbirds stole the show. Three feeders in an open field added the buzzy Broad-tailed and enormous Magnificent Hummers, as well as the tiny pugilistic Rufous. But it was a sharp camper, whose name I can’t remember, who showed up the guides when a whistled call note encouraged us to chase down a beautiful Thick-billed Kingbird. The camper’s work listening to bird song tapes prior to camp paid off. It was the only one we’d see on the whole trip.

The first day in a new place is always the most exciting as you pick up all of the common species. For me, I’d never come close on the rest of the trip to the haul I pulled in that first 24 hours of real birding. It remains my biggest life day, and one I’ll never forget.

MEJA and ELTR from wikipedia
VCHU from jerryoldenettel via flickr
SCOR from JN Stuart via flickr

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4 Comments
  1. Greg permalink
    May 13, 2009 6:26 pm

    What a day! Your Aunt Mary Anne’s wedding day, too. You owe me one!

  2. The Little Sister permalink
    May 13, 2009 6:51 pm

    WAS the biggest day of your life, May 15th is approaching and the UNC basketball team want their ball back!

    We missed you at the wedding. I think you and your lovely family owe us an anniversary celebration together!

  3. dAwN permalink
    May 14, 2009 12:03 pm

    I know exactly what you mean..We started birding and adding to our life list for the first time four years ago in Arizona…we racked up allot of lifers in a very short time..And some amazing birds. Rufuous sided Robin, Rose throated Becard and Yellow Grosbeak to name a few of our highlights.
    We plan on a repeat visit this winter..
    OH…Great I and the bird post…by the way..

  4. DDolan permalink
    May 14, 2009 12:11 pm

    Hey Nate, how do you have time to do all of this work? Trying to get it all in before the big day? Great job as always on this post as well as the I and the Bird.

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