Camp Chiricahua Jul 07—18, 2009
Posted by Rob Day
We are the Ninja Birders (Dave's van) and the Evil Potoos (Rob's van). Tech-savvy yet stirred by wild places that hint of an older world. Fortified by granola bars and beef jerky and good rock-and-roll as our doughty vans clatter across the miles, we sail the desert seas, plying the arid basins that shimmer in the hard light and iron heat of the Arizona sun. We are the explorers of mountain islands: Chiricahuas, Huachucas, and Santa Ritas—isolated archipelagos of life rich in diversity and potential that seem to levitate above the desert plain. Though we may differ in age and background and experience, on this venture we are one, driven by shared expectation, and mindful to engage the unexpected.
I once sailed far into the East, so far that neither wind nor water heeded my command, being ignorant of their true names; or more likely it was I who was ignorant.
The world is very large, the open Sea going past all knowledge; and there are worlds beyond the world.
—URSULA K. Le GUIN
The Miller Canyon hike, our introduction to the Huachucas, had an auspicious start. It began with another look at an approachable and affable pair of Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, a favorite in its distinctively tropical attire for a flycatcher. Our first Red-faced Warblers appeared; betrayed by their furtive movements in the tangle of oaks and Arizona sycamore, they soon obligingly emerged to continue their foraging at trails-edge, allowing us to admire their smart red, black, and gray attire. We are stopped by a "wild" Berylline Hummingbird that perched just above the trail, allowing quick but satisfying study prior to our anticipated visit to the hummingbird feeders at Tom Beatty's orchard down-canyon. We stopped again to admire a Chrysina beetle, here an iridescent green and violet jewel that complements the green and gold-striped species seen by the group earlier in the Chiricahuas, and the smaller gold specimen with an iridescent blue underside drawn to the lights of the San Pedro River Inn the previous evening. I had never before seen the latter species prior to this camp.
Entering the tall coniferous forest with its big-tooth maple understory, a pair of Spotted Owls roosting in the sub-canopy directly above the trail and just above head height startled us to mindfulness. Riveted in place by the owl's aloofness and serenity, we lingered for intimate study of the delicately vermiculated plumage contrasting with the predatory potential of scaled talons, the dark stare of gently lidded eyes, and a comical yawn followed by a slowly averted gaze that betrayed minor irritation, observations punctuated by proximity. This was our second encounter with Spotted Owl. Our first was a lone bird lunging forward from his perch each time he boomed his mighty call into dark conifers on a star-sprayed night in the Chiricahuas, an earlier experience assumed difficult to exceed. We pried ourselves away from the owls for new opportunities to savor Painted Redstarts and Grace's Warblers; nuances of Cordilleran Flycatcher behavior as he hawked insects and proclaimed territory in the forest-light of the canyon; a tiny banded-rock rattlesnake coiled trailside like a sinister toy; and the antics of a Canyon Wren dwarfed by the limestone monoliths that comprised its territory.
Now descending, we are stopped by a bird vocalization that is unexpected, unfamiliar, and penetrating. Thrush-like, it is at once discordant yet pleasantly complex; it has a mounting, glass-like, and then tumbling cadence that renders it ethereal yet electrifying. One of the participants consults his iPhone on which he has wisely stored calls of Mexican birds. We are hearing a Brown-backed Solitaire, an endemic of the Mexican highlands. This is Jilguero, haunting songster of cathedral forests of remote Sierras. Our hike is suddenly one of those rare and special episodes that make birding the sky-islands of southeast Arizona unique. Beyond the ever-present potential for such discovery in the border highlands, we have crossed paths with a true rarity from the sub-tropics. We must see this bird. Play-back is used with care; fly-fishing with sound—just enough to pique the birds interest, not so much that our quarry is alarmed and vanishes into the conifers. The bird responds. Bunched together on the trail, we crane and contort to glimpse the bird in startling aerial display through a screen of canopy boughs. The Solitaire ascends to hover in the gulf of air above the forest; his call fills the canyon. It's on the move again. A purposeful flier of pine-clad ridges and the high canopy of coniferous forest, the Solitaire finally alights on an exposed bough and all of us have it in our binoculars. It allows us the subtleties of its plumage: soft gray with a rich brown mantle, white crescents that highlight the eye, the outer tail edged in white. The bird is still intent on confronting a rival; beak agape like that of a Bellbird, his call rings out once again in the depths of Miller Canyon.