Camp Chiricahua Jul 13—24, 2010

Posted by Rob Day


Rob Day

Rob Day became interested in birds and natural history at an early age. His fascination for birds started in Norway with the chance appearance of an elusive and striking pa...

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It is the 12th of July, 2010: Tucson once again. Seen on the inbound flight it has become as hazy as any city in Southern California; the faded landscape of bleached-out colors, blurred mountains, and dun-colored sky increasingly characteristic of the southwest in the new regime of drought and urbanization. But then I remember…

A hike I took with my boys (now 15 and 17) years ago in sage scrub-covered hillsides near our home in Southern California. It was mid-May. Winter rains that year had been stingy, and spring migration poor up to that point; the characteristic flush of spring-time green that blankets the hills absent that year. I honestly expected little in the way of birding, just some fun with my boys.

The prospect of brown hillsides that greeted us at the start of the hike reinforced my diminished expectations, though the air was bright with a perfect blue sky and nimble post-rain clouds. A robust weather system had just passed through providing our only measurable rain for the season. As we entered the hills, unexpected detail began to reveal itself, hidden away in each arroyo we traversed. Here was a male tarantula searching for a mate. There a handsome Lazuli Bunting in vigorous song while a crisply plumaged Townsend's Warbler probed tangles at the base of the same chaparral bush. Most startling was a botanical display in a gully that had recently burned: an elfin forest of larkspur (Delphinium sp.) in stunning indigo, and an extraordinary wild onion (Allium sp.) in fetching pink (the Allium has not reappeared in the ten years since). I was mistaken in my apprehensions.

It is the 19th of July, 2010. The meadow at Rustler Park and our camp lie hidden by the wall of conifers beneath us; a lichen-stained outcrop of volcanic rock soars behind, and the vastness of the yellow desert plain beyond. In the sumptuous light of late afternoon, thunderheads potent with malevolence are building to the south. There are purple curtains of rain and a growl of thunder. From our lofty prospect, we study birds at eye level: a jaunty pair of Northern Flickers, a fine Steller's Jay with an improbable crest that bobs wildly, and a domestic dispute between Cordilleran Flycatchers. A stunning male Western Tanager alights on the lichen-bearded crown of a snag immediately in front of us, and then inexplicably disappears into a crevice in the rock wall. Earlier, a mixed-species flock of Mexican Chickadees and Yellow-eyed Juncos, Brown Creeper and Pygmy Nuthatch, and family groups of Olive Warblers filled the canopy to our left. The fluting of a Hermit Thrush drifts up to us as we sort through the diversity of pyrophytes (plants that follow fire) around us, and admire improbable hanging gardens (yellow Rocky Mountain columbines juxtaposed with mats of hedgehog cactus) tucked into irregularities in the rock wall above. A twin-spotted rattlesnake is discovered at the base of a fire-gutted pine.

Nearly lost in the expanse of desert sea far beyond is the limestone ridge we toiled up in the heat days earlier for Black-chinned Sparrow, Scott's Oriole, and Rock Wren. Here an unexpected Indigo Bunting sang with an urgency punctuated by a backdrop of desert scrub in the scope. We marveled at the extraordinary coloration of a rainbow grasshopper in the tussock grass, and the mighty effort of a female Pepsis wasp dragging a paralyzed tarantula across the dirt road for oviposition in a hidden burrow. In the middle distance and off to the right are the spires above Cave Creek, sublime in the waning light. In the canyon shadows below a male Elegant Trogon barks before retiring, and a Painted Redstart flits and tumbles headfirst down the trunk of an Arizona madrone, gleaning one last morsel before the light is gone and the stirring of Whip-poor-wills begins.

But then I remember: this is southeast Arizona. Here there are still hidden things and nothing is as it appears…