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Wingtrip Does Arizona (Long)

(When I go on week long trips, see massive amounts, and come back with a lot to say, brevity goes out the door. I appreciate all my readers, however few, and I promise shorter entries in the future. However, I hope you enjoy my notes from a week in Arizona.)

“Can we go to the Sun City Golf Course?” came a voice from the back of the van. “They have water there.”

If you guessed this the plea of a link-obsessed geriatric under my watch, you’d be wrong. The voice belonged to one of the six high schoolers in the van, one in particular I was on the verge of strangling. I didn’t want to hear about the course one more time, mainly because I abhor golf (not the sport, the implications of green grass in places such as Arizona), and also because this wasn’t a golfing trip. Because one of their grandparents happened to see a few things on the edge of the golf course he lived by, this waste of water had been elevated to Mecca.

Wedged into a van we’d been driving around Southeastern Arizona for the past week. A little over a year ago I started volunteering with this mad hatter group of teens, Seattle Audubon’s Birdwatch program. My reasons, that is, beyond a pure benevolent nature? I’m alumni.

At the risk of revealing my tender youth, I joined Birdwatch 10 years ago, a bird crazed freshman. Already a seasoned Seattle Audubon member and I was chomping at the bit to be of age. It turned out to be one of the most important experiences of my life. Finding peers was paramount, but through Birdwatch I spent a summer volunteering in the ornithology collections at the Burke Museum. As a paid intern (!!) for a local bander Don Norman, I was introduced to the art of banding birds. I practiced environmental education. I went on fantastic spring trips all over the country.

Continuing to help a program so formative for me only makes sense. When I moved back to Seattle after college, I did. The fringe benefit is getting to go on the annual spring trip, which for the past years I have helped fundraise and organize. Peddling shade-grown coffee, executing rummage sales, and working in people’s yards – Birdwatch finds ways to make the trip happen. In an ideal world Seattle Audubon would be able to find grants and monies to float the entire trip, but we’re a non-profit. And not so secretly, I insist the importance for the kids to truly own the trip, providing most of the funding. They pay a fraction of the cost out of pocket because an accessible trip is essential.

For those who didn’t know, the many and jagged mountain ranges and baking deserts of Southeastern Arizona provide for some of the best birding in the United States. Part is due to the steep climbing mountains allowing for the so-called sky islands of stratified, distinct habitats and the summer storms with origins far south to revitalize every July and August. The proximity to the border of Mexico has much to do with the diversity too, but it also provides for an uneasy police state. The fact that it’s chalk full of specialty birds is a strange contrast. Calling them specialties is slightly misleading because almost all of these birds are just across the border, in higher abundance. Calling them specialties is a figment of our imaginary American divisions (the same goes for the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas – where went last year). No matter, the experiences these kids got scrambling around in the Southwest were priceless.

The value of cultivating teenage interest in the natural world is that these kids will go on to save the world. That’s not even vaguely a joke. Many of them have the passion and drive to change our planet. Birdwatch gave me that empowerment and I want to continue that legacy.

Starting our tour in the florid Saguaro National Monument, flush with new growth and pungently fresh from a week of rain, we headed south. The Santa Rita Mountains and infamous Madera Canyon were the first stop. Without going to Mexico you can’t stray too far – so we veered east at the border town of Nogales. Patagonia, the only vibrant riparian area we visited along the way, was on way to the steep Huachuca Mountains. Finally, we strode on to the Chiricahuas, the land of Jeronimo’s final stand, before circling back to Tucson. Whirlwind week is an understatement.

And oh the birds we saw! Although it was slow, with extended winter chill, we found almost all the species we could expect considering this constrained schedule. Any experienced birder knows a rushed schedule doesn’t leave time for error or time sunk into looking for uncooperative species. But I’ll be damned if we didn’t luck out (we missed some stuff, but who cares?!).

A nearly resident Flame-colored Tanager visited the bird feeders in Madera Canyon. A first for many, I’d only spied them through a patchwork of canopy. In neighboring Florida Wash, we teased out a Rufous-capped Warbler (Basileuterus rufifrons), which had been skulking about in a birder typical, trickily specific location. Unusual for Arizona, raucous water from the snowmelt made it impossible to communicate as we scoured the creek basin scrub for the bird. A male Elegant Trogon (Trogon elegans) at Patagonia Lake that was magnificently cooperative, hamming it up as we slammed down our shutters. Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahuas provided us a rather intimate moment as a pair of Elf Owls (Micrathene whitneyi), unabashedly going about the “business.” At the South Western Research Station where we stayed in Cave Creek, a Whiskered Screech Owl (Megascops trichopsis) was readily found. At the risk of boring the non-birder, I’ll stop the prattle on bird species.

Birds weren’t the only animals on the platter. We were fortunate to have a good number of budding herpetologists, including Sam Riley, who is well on his way to becoming a prodigy. Over my four high school trips, I never remembered thinking about anything beyond the avian; these kids had a one up on me. The winter also affected the reptiles we found but Sam and his fellows teased out a Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus), a Banded Gecko (Coleonyx variegates), many Scleropus species, and a Regal Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma solare) (the lizard famed for squirting blood out it’s eyes in defense). Although Sam often tried to hijack the trip for his own purposes, I was glad to have this added element.

In the past (this was my third trip in the area), I’d underestimated watching birds around Tucson. But there were tons of places to visit and I began to appreciate the overgrown vacant lots filled largely with native plants. A rather surreal encounter with a Harris’s Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus) was had at the Sweet Water Wetlands on our last day.

Although it sounds rather “new agey”, I firmly believe that many species are capable of comprehending human intentions. That being said, I don’t like to encourage tameness and trust in wild animals because while I have faith in humanity on the whole, a rotten few spoil it for the rest.

At the wetlands, one of the other photographers of the group, Colin and I were strolling through the converted sewage treatment ponds. Ahead of us we could see a young Harris’s Hawk perched on some of the treatment equipment. Over the two trips Colin and I have been on, we both think fairly alike in approaching birds. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder, walk slowly, and pause periodically with multiple frames – it’s the digital, nature photographer’s way. But this bird wasn’t phased. Suddenly we were five feet from it. In shock at it’s nonchalance, I didn’t know what to do next.

I ended up taking over 400 photos of the bird. Having the opportunity to fill your frame with a wild raptor’s face or talons is unquestionably thrilling and once in a lifetime. The teens ran to grab their cameras, other people walked up, I left and came back with a fresh memory card. The bird lounged. For a while I though it was sick or feared it would latch to the face of one of my charges. I had visions of a talon pocked face, blood streaming down a face as we missed our flight and took someone to the hospital. Wiggling my toes, I caught the hawk’s attention, muse for an inquisitive twist of the head. I realized that I didn’t want my toes the focus of a predator.

Only when I slid into my seat on the plane did I realize how tired I was. Now I finally understood what the Birdwatch coordinator, Emily Sprong, had meant when she’d wanted another week off to relax. But I didn’t sleep on the plane. Instead of took photos from the plane window for a whole three hours. These kids were non-stop, but I was just an enabler.

Considering myself an adult but being not too far out of the fold, working with teens is challenging. The little buggers are far from forgiving and constantly demanding. Sometimes I felt like I was losing rank with them because I’d have to rein in their perpetual wanderings (in retrospect I was the same way). Paranoid I’d become the grump chaperone, I convinced myself that being a grump isn’t a problem as long as the teens realized I really cared.

Birding is a pastime that very purely selfish. We drive about a landscape, using gas, water, and countless other resources in a manner that has seemingly no purpose. But if only one of the Birdwatch kids (and I suppose I count too), grows up to inspire others, it’ll all be worth it.

And thankfully we managed to avoid that f***ing golf course.

By the quantity of photos in the entry, you can tell I took a lot of photos.  I encourage everyone to check out my collection for the trip here.  I was fairly satisfied at my results.

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