MADERA CANYON: I am writing from a lodge near the end of the road high in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson, Arizona. I have no telephone, no television, and no internet access. I have no idea when I will be able to send in this column; maybe when I return to Vermont at the end of January.
There is not much to do here except to relax, decompress, read, hike ... and oh yes, do some birding. I am not madly chasing birds, even though the mountains in southern Arizona are famous for the rare birds that show up here. Just watching the birds at the bird feeders has often been enough - the flock of Mexican Jays, not quite as noisy as our Blue Jays, but otherwise behaving like jays, the juncos, sparrows, turkeys, and Acorn Woodpecker.
But more of that on another occasion, perhaps. Yesterday I was at the mouth of the canyon in the dry grassland and mesquite looking for whatever. I met a young man who was obviously birding, and of course, asked what he had been seeing. He was still excited about the warbler he had seen the day before and told me about it. It was a Rufous-capped Warbler, a bird from central Mexico which on very rare occasions wanders northward to southeastern Arizona. I had already encountered other birders who had come chasing this rarity. I was ready for a different walk, and thought, why not? I repeated his directions several times.
About noon I drove to a nearby canyon as directed. I went to the end of a washboard gravel road that would make most of Vermont’s washboard roads seem smooth. Several cars were in the trailhead parking area. I suspected that the people from the cars were not hiking the rugged canyon trail, but looking for a rare bird to add to their life lists.
The trail paralleled a wash for several hundred yards, then made a sharp left. Following directions, I made a sharp right, scrambled down to the mostly dry wash and turned upstream. During the next twenty minutes I climbed up, over, and around stones, boulders, patches of running water and tiny pools of still water, each step ascending in elevation. It was rigorous, scarcely a step that might count as a normal stroll.
I was glad to meet a few people along the way. They were an excuse to rest without seeming to need a rest, to catch breath, and wipe the brow. A man had left his girlfriend in the area where the bird was being seen. She needed it for her life list; he did not. An older couple confirmed the final directions and told me I was only a few minutes from the area. Hiking alone, as I was, these encounters gave me a reassurance that I would not be alone should I slip on the next rock and find myself incapacitated.
At the last landmark, I climbed a narrow dirt path through dense shrub. Partway through I saw three people standing, staring overhead in my direction. I froze while they peered through binoculars. Finally they signaled me to continue. They had heard two birds calling. My approach had probably brought one bird closer, but they had no success finding it.
And so, in a long narrow canyon I joined three other people looking for a tiny bird that likes to stay in dense low thickets. The Rufous-capped Warbler, I had learned, is a funny little warbler. Its heavy bill is not warbler-like. Most warblers are sleek birds; this one is sort of squat, almost dumpy, making its tail look long. It likes to cock its tail upward, almost (but not quite) the way a wren does. The back and tail are olive-drab. Beauty comes from the bright yellow throat and the rusty-red cap on its head, a cap dissected by a sharp white line.
Skill and doggedness contribute to finding a rare small bird, but the key ingredient is luck. The woman whose partner had left her behind was here for the second day. The day before she had arrived about ten minutes after the young man who gave me directions had seen the bird for about two minutes at 2:00. She stayed until the 3:30 when the canyon became shadowed as sun dropped behind the ridge, and with it, the temperature. She was back at 9 am on this day, meeting an octogenarian who was already starting out of the canyon, having seen the warbler on the ground a few feet in front of him as he was climbing.
She had to leave at 2:00, but we heard a bird calling and went searching. Something moved in the tree top leaves. It was bright yellow underneath and streaked along its sides - a Townsend’s Warbler - a good bird, a beautiful warbler, an uncommon winter warbler - but not the rare warbler we were looking for.
I decided to stay another hour, then extended my stay another fifteen minutes, while watching the sun and the shadows in the canyon. When I saw that other people were still nearby, I added another fifteen minutes. I had been there over two hours. I had seen the Townsend’s Warbler, and I had watched a Prairie Falcon hunting above the ridge. Those were the only birds I had seen. The Townsend’s was also the only bird I heard, although straining ears tried to make dripping water into a bird call. Attention was grabbed when a butterfly fluttered across the canyon, or an insect busied around a tree, or a leaf rustled in the bare breeze.
A young woman was a few yards down slope, and the couple was approaching my perch. Five more minutes, I told myself, but I then extended another final five. It had been a good afternoon with bright warm sun. The climb up the almost dry wash was an adventure. The narrow band of riparian habitat along the wash contrasted with the semi-arid grassland with mesquite and cacti just a few yards up the steep canyon slope. There were no engine sounds, no modern intrusions, not even a power line or a scrap of rusty barbed wire. It was a day of good birding, even if there were hardly any birds to see.
I checked my watch. One more minute, I told myself, then stuffed my watch back in my pocket. I looked at a thicket to my right. Something moved low. Binoculars up. Olive-drab. Tail up. Moving through the woody stems. With one hand I signaled silently to the others nearby, while I watched. As they stepped next to me, I whispered where. Inches from the ground, the bird hopped onto a branch. The head was crowned with rusty red. It was still for about as long as it would take to say, “Rufous-capped Warbler,” then it flew.
We followed two birds as they flitted through the thicket, then flew across the wash, but the only thing that could clearly be seen was that there was a pair of small, olive-sort-of birds. It was now several minutes past my self-assigned departure time. They thanked me for the alert; I wished them good luck in getting an identifiable look. I started down the canyon.
I met eight people in the wash. Most had spent more time looking for this rarity than I had. Most were probably better birders than I am, and half were more serious chasers. I was lucky; the birding gods smiled on me. I doubt I did anything to deserve it. In the evening when I lifted a cup of nectar, I first toasted the birding gods and scattered a few drops as a grateful libation. But only a few drops! Those gods don’t always smile.