Birding Big Year 2016

May 30, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 7: Edwards Plateau to the banks of the Rio Grande

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Birds, Parks, Texas, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 9:54 pm
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Salineno crossing of the Rio Grande

Burn, Born, or Bernie?  It is slightly unsettling to wake up in a Texas town I cannot pronounce.  In a private moment Google saves me yet again.  I am able to join the breakfast conversation with Harry, Ken and Lisa, and sound like a local – Boerne is “Bernie.”  I know how silly a person sounds mispronouncing local place names.  A few days ago, Harry and I practiced saying Hachita, New Mexico: not hat-Cheetah, but whah-He-ta.  I marvel at how visitors to City of Rocks and my regional area completely botch the pronunciations:

CORRECT                      BOTCHED
Almo                               Elmo, Alamo
Elba                                 Elbow
Cassia (Cas-shuh)      Cass-ee-uh
Declo                               Delco
Cache (Cash)                 Ca-shay

The last morning of March in the Texas Hill Country couldn’t come more perfect. Last night’s rain and the rising sun reintroduce me to the concept of humidity – that strange climatological phenomenon not experienced back home in Idaho (or as people east of the Alleghenies pronounce it: Iowa). Today is another crucial leg of the epic big year trip.  Ken has promised to guide me to the endangered Golden-cheeked Warblers of Friedrich Wilderness Park managed by the City of San Antonio.  I am skeptical that any place within the limits of the 25th largest metropolitan area in the US could qualify as wilderness, but Ken is uncompromisingly confident.  We say our goodbyes to Lisa, and follow the pilot car of captain Ken through suburbia.

OK, I stand corrected. What a great park.  The lot is full of cars and joggers prepping for a workout.  Most have ear-buds inserted and dangling, evidence that they are not birders racing me to the whereabouts of warblers.  Ken praises the park as a great close-to-home winter training ground for summer’s western adventures.  I am not impressed – show me the warblers! We pass a person on the trail about every two minutes and I wonder if warblers will be wary. Ken leads us into the right habitat of Ashe Juniper and Plateau Live Oak.  I hear nothing.  Wait! I do hear a faint buzzy zeedle zeedle zweeeee tsip (or as they say in their winter home of Mexico: zeedle zeedle zweeeee tsip).  Golden-cheeked Warblers never sound like tourists.

Fixated now on the call, I side-step my scout and rush 20 yards up the terraced limestone trail until the song resonates from the canopy directly above. Yep, that’s him!  Now all I have to do is find him.  Suddenly a UTV (Utility Terrain Vehicle – aka Ultimate Torture d’Vice) pulls up with trail crew.  I no longer can hear the warbler over the motor.  Patiently waiting for the crew to pass or cut the engine, I watch horrified as the two-man crew begin to dump and spread gravel, and then proceed to run the machine over it for compaction. Are you kidding me?! I am losing it man! Ken senses a Mount St. Helens-like frustration rising from my gut to my mouth.  mere moments before my language breaks forth like lava, my six and a half foot, 250 lb. San Antonio “big brother” turns back down the trail and has a “conversation” with the oblivious and admittedly innocent crew.  Seconds later in relative silence, I relocate the zeedle and begin the task of pairing song with sight.  A life bird does not count by sound alone and must be observed visually. Fifteen minutes later, after suffering what birders diagnose as “Warbler Neck,” I get a 10-second unobstructed view of my quarry.  A photo is out of the question. I pride myself on getting the hard shots of uncommon birds, but this misbehaving bird, oak-choked foliage, and this into-the-sun angle will defeat even the best photographer (or as a Facebook friend accepting the auto-correct once called me a photo gopher).  Come to think of it, that sounds about right.

Harry is relieved that I am satisfied with the observation, fearing a long boring trip back to Kerr Wildlife Management Area if I had failed to locate the warbler here.  Ken is proud to have proven up on the promise.  Shortly, a husband and wife volunteer survey team reaches us and shares their findings.  They mention a few other birds seen close by that are needed for the big year list, and so off we go.  Anything seen now is icing; I got what I came for.  Soon we are relaxing on benches below one of the oldest working windmills in Bexar County, listing and snapping photos of #163 Black-and-white Warbler.  White-eyed Vireo and Northern Mockingbird also make the list before reaching the vehicles.

Heartfelt valedictions are shared but not belabored. I may see Ken in Almo before the passing of summer. Soon Ken is headed back to Boerne and we descend the Balcones Escarpment of San Antonio toward the border town of Laredo and the Rio Grande. With every passing mile, the temperature rises, until we find ourselves parked on the black asphalt of Laredo Walmart, cooking at 105 degrees.  We need ice and lots of it.  The chest is a slurping pool of tepid water.

From Laredo we make out like bandits to San Ygnacio, Zapata, and Falcon Dam.  Bob Jennings led me here in February ’93, where I was privileged to be the novice member of one of the greatest birding teams ever assembled: Bob Jennings of course, and Bob G. from Kansas, Don from Arkansas, Wally from Tulsa, Jim and Gerald from I now forget where, and Jay – a retired snowbird I first met while working Devil’s Den State Park in Arkansas. It was in this area that I scored Common Black Hawk, Brown Jay, Olive Sparrow, White-collared Seedeater, and Northern Jacana.  I am looking to list these again for the Big Year.

I follow the signs to Falcon State Park where we plan to camp for the night, but I get so turned around, I find myself nearly Carretera a Septina Base Militar headed straight into the international border patrol station without a clue or passport.  I pause just short of the booth like an outlaw fearing capture.  Slowly I back up and reverse course, hoping to find some place to bird along the river below.  We find it in the small Mexican-American village of Salineno. The village is over 280 years old, and prior to that served as an important crossing of the grand river by prehistoric inhabitants and Native Americans.  Salineno once served as the headquarters of the vast Rancho Salinas.  A short drive through the plaza, the road descends to the smooth flowing Rio Grande. Reeds disguise the banks on both sides, but the old river crossing is evident. I pause to skip a rock to Mexico. This is as good a place as any to smuggle marijuana or hunt for border birds.  I strike off upriver while Harry guards the gear. Once again I am trying to find success during the height of siesta.  The sun directly overhead hails (hells?) on us unrelenting.  But a bird is whistling just ahead, and so I press on in the oppressive furnace.  A perfectly field marked male White-collared Seedeater perches on a stalk of river cane – small and boisterous. #166 – Yahoo! (or as they say in Texas – Wahoo!).  Nothing else flits, sings, calls or flies.

Enough of the day remains that we decide to push on to Mission and find more modern accommodations.  Besides, I have arranged for a 7 a.m. rendezvous in Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park with Russell – my new found birding buddy I met back at City of Rocks on January 7 and with whom I birded unsuccessfully for Sharp-tailed Grouse the following day.  The distance and traffic soon prove me right.  It is nearly dusk when we roll into Mission Motel 6.  Like a saddle-worn, unshaven, and dusty cowboy, I freshen up, put on a respectable shirt and head out with Harry to find a saloon and restaurant.  No Taco Bell for us, we are on a mission in Mission to find authentic Mexican grub.

A few miles away, a modern strip mall proudly displays the name of a restaurant that sounds Mexican enough (which as a tourist I dare not pronounce), so we pull in and take a chance.  A large dining area of perhaps 20 tables spread before us, but only three are taken.  Well, it’s Thursday night, so perhaps that’s to be expected.  We are escorted to a booth with cloth-wrapped silverware, and are handed pretentiously over-sized menus entirely in Spanish.  Harry and I struggle privately with the contents and the prices.  The waitress stoically offers to take our order, but we pepper her with questions.  What is this; what is that; why is this priced at $120?  In broken English she attempts to answer questions the usual customers need not inquire.  Finally, I ask, “Do you have Chile Relleno? She pauses briefly, raises her nose slightly and states, “We’re not that kind of restaurant!” Finally, we order something akin to sweet goat meat wrapped in a soft flour tortilla – $15.  There’s little else on the plate but a pepper that Harry dares me to eat.  I happen to love peppers, but from the moment I stick my fork into it, my eyes water and I begin to sweat.  By the time it reaches my mouth, Harry is asking the waitress on my behalf for first aid and a second glass of cold water.  “Just pour the water over my head kind sir.  I am about to spontaneously combust!”

Back at the motel, Harry flips through the channels while I update my notes and edit photos.  I quickly conclude that I am in desperate need of a big day.  My numbers are embarrassingly low for someone who has just spent three days birding Texas.  At least the pressure of listing the Golden-cheeked Warbler is behind me.  I am consoled by the knowledge that tomorrow I will once again be birding with a birder (sorry Harry, but you are no help – and bats don’t have feathers, nor do they count).  Russell has been in the area for weeks, and should help me cut the id time in half as well as lead me directly to the hotspots.  Speaking of hotspots, I may have to sleep standing up tonight for fear that the weaponized pepper (most likely banned by the Geneva Convention) may return a modo de esófago. Buenos nachos?  Unlikely.

(Stay tuned for Epic Birding Trip Part 8: Bentsen-Rio Grande to Goose Island)

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May 23, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 6: Davis Mountains to Edwards Plateau

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Birds, Parks, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 3:13 am
Kerr WMA

Kerr Wildlife Management Area, Texas

The sun rises quickly over the Davis Mountains of west Texas, or maybe I am just waking to the reality that somewhere back in Culberson County we entered Central Time Zone. I contemplate the unlikely idea that clocks in west Texas are set the same as in Nashville, Tennessee.  From the moment I left Almo, Idaho, I have become temporally-challenged.  I started in Mountain Time, entered the Pacific through Nevada, lost reality again in Arizona – that state where daylight savings time is not observed.  Frankly, I still don’t know what time it is there.  And now, here we are at the western extreme of Central Time Zone with the Jeep clock still set on Almo time.  Almo….that small village I call home, where one needs at least a tank of gas and a time machine to get there from most any place worth being from.  It’s best if birders just observe the dawn and leave it at that.

Thank God for Poorwills, nature’s goatsucking/nighjarring alarm clocks.  Big Year Bird #152 wakes and whacks me into a Texas-sized state of awareness. Today is the day that will decide the success or failure of the entire trip.  Somewhere at the end of it, I hope to be celebrating with good friends near San Antonio and toasting my observations of Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler.  These two endangered species, located almost exclusively in the Edward’s Plateau, are the inspiration and purpose for my epic trip.  But first I need to give Montezuma’s Quail one last chance to attend a meet-and-greet. Rumor has it (i.e. choice gossip heard around the camp host site) that MOQU occasionally visit the designated wildlife viewing areas of the park.

Harry and I pay the first viewing area a visit near the aptly-named Montezuma Quail Trail Head.  No quail here, but I do confirm with camera the presence of #153 Rufous-capped Sparrow.  With no time to waste today, we proceed to the second wildlife viewing area adjacent to the Interpretive Center.  Here we find only White-winged Doves and a Javelina snorting birdseed. Our friendly camp host is around the corner, chatting with fellow parkies and a local visitor about birds.  I join in briefly until a nearby bird begins to sing.  The truth is I enjoy talking about birds only half as much as hearing birds sing.  Abruptly (and possibly rudely), I extract myself from the conversation and gravitate to what surely must be some new towhee or sparrow.  I pride myself on birding 80% by ear, but this one falls within the 20% category: must see to confirm.  The park staff watch me circle a juniper like a drunkard.  Bobbing and weaving, I try to make sense of the little shadow jumping around the darkened interior. Two other birders enlist for the cause, and finally the bird flushes to a deciduous tree not fully clothed for the season.  Why, it’s just a wren!  But which?  Everyone joins into the conversation, speculation, and process of elimination. I am the first to settle on Bewick’s, but immediately face doubts and diverse opinions.  Hey, I’m the new guy here, and these folks are supposed to be the resident experts.  I spend another precious five minutes convincing them that indeed it is – probably because I need to be convinced that I have just added Big Year Bird #154.

I desperately want to add MOQU to the life list.  Harry and I proceed up the steep and narrow Skyline Drive to the scenic overlook.  Harry hops out for a photo, I scan the grassy ridge – both of us leave less than satisfied.  We both want to see Fort Davis National Historic Site down in town, and time is slipping away.  We can’t afford unproductive distractions, and we decide to be satisfied with a slow ride down Lt. Henry Flipper Drive. As a life-long park professional, I know that in most parks, visitors rarely leave the vehicle or venture a few hundred yards beyond the road. I am ashamed to say we did not read a single wayside exhibit, let alone tour the visitor center or historic buildings.  My apologies to the staff at FODA, but somewhere 340 miles east of here Black-capped Vireos are vociferously defending territories and wooing hot-looking females. Who would want to miss that?!

From Fort Davis to Fort Stockton, I clutch the wheel.  Harry provides relief from there to Sonora, and then hands-off the com to me for the final leg.  From the atlas, the quickest route to Kerr Wildlife Management Area is not entirely clear, but it feels good to be rid of I-10 for a while.  We opt for Texas Highway 41, but are not confident of the choice.  Driving what seems like the wrong direction for nearly 20 minutes, I almost talk myself into a turn-around. Fortunately, I am distracted by #156 Black Vulture just long enough to reach the long anticipated junction of Farm-to-Market Road 1340. Shortly thereafter, #157 Crested Caracara leads the way to the grand entrance of Kerr WMA.

The stress is building.  Earlier I made a commitment to be at Ken and Lisa’s house in the outskirts of San Antonio around 6:30 p.m. for dinner.  They have generously invited us to spend the night.  Good food, conversation, and a real bed required little persuasion.  And yet, the clock on the jeep says 3:30 p.m.   …wait, is that Almo time or Texas?  No matter, I only have a few hours to find and observe two rare and endangered birds.  Sometimes expert birders can spend half a day looking for a common bird that for some unknown reason chooses secrecy.  Like a rock climber at the base of a new multi-pitch route, I need the inside beta to bag this one.  A quick stop at the WMA office results in only one valuable piece of information: “drive up the road until you come to the listening shelter.”  What’s a listening shelter?

Oh.  duh. A short drive up the road, we encounter a small structure built to provide shade over a small sitting area, where birders are encouraged to wait and hear the birds.  The first shelter is located proximal to prime habitat of the Golden-cheeked Warbler. We sit.  We wait. We stand…. I really don’t have time for this!  3:45 p.m. – I fear they are sleeping.  With feral cat-like steps, I maneuver through the nearby Ashe Juniper woodland in hopes of observing an active albeit silent bird.  Nothing moves, nothing sings.  Not good.

We proceed to the second listening shelter, this one located in the homeland of the Black-capped Vireo.  Mere seconds pass and cha-ching! We both hear the song of North America’s tiniest vireo, emanating from within a small island of scrubby brush.  At first the song reminds me of a hurried and hyperactive Green-tailed Towhee. I imagine locating this Texas bird in a New York minute, snapping off a stellar photo, and then moving on to more productive locations for the Golden-cheeked Warbler.  But the vireo is having none of it.  I can almost hear him lecturing me: “You have been planning this trip around me since December.  I am one of the most sought-after birds in the country.  Do you seriously think I am going to expose myself to you just so you can click a photo and check me off some list?” BCVI plays hide and seek with me for 15 minutes, flitting from one tree to another 40 yards away.  I catch only mere glimpses, and getting a photo is out of the question.  Finally, I settle for a two-second, full-on view of the magnificently marked head – white eye-ring contrasted with black hoody.  It’s not what I planned for, certainly not the dream sighting, but it will have to do.  Time is running out and I have yet to see a Golden-cheeked Warbler.

Somewhere along Ringtail Road (named for an equally elusive animal) we stop abruptly to examine a large avian-filled oak.  More than a few birds fly across our path into the lichen-covered branches. By the call, they are vireos, and for a brief moment I imagine a second chance at the Black-capped.  With patience, I do get a photo…of Yellow-throated Vireo. YTVI is thrilling to say the least – but not really the species that makes the trip epic.  Time is up, and we back-track along Kerr WMA Road, picking up a few new birds along the way – Eastern Phoebe, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, etc.  Just off Road 1340, we try one more trail head, but the gate is locked.  Frustrated, bewildered, and unsure what to do, we depart the region and head for Ken and Lisa’s.  Ken sends a text asking our location and if I was successful.  I reply with our GTA (Guesstimated Time of Arrival) and confess my failure to locate the warbler.  He assures me they are singing and easily found in Friedrich Wilderness Park near their house, and he promises to personally take me there tomorrow.

We have the makings of a plan, but I promise Harry that if Ken’s strategy fails, we will be driving all the way back here for round two.  No matter how discombobulated the trip schedule becomes or how many hotspots I must cut from the itinerary – I will not leave the Edwards Plateau without listing a Golden-cheeked Warbler. I can be at such times obstinate and unyielding.

We arrive at Ken and Lisa’s about 10 minutes before them.  Ken had said, “If you get there first, make yourself at home; there’s beer and food in the fridge.  The front yard of their ranch-style home is canopied in live oak, and the backyard has a swimming pool aerated by a small waterfall.  Bird feeders hang at the border between manicured lawn and jungled hillside.  Surely new birds will be seen here.  I plant myself in a cushioned patio chair and wait for painted buntings.

Soon enough they arrive and hugs and handshakes abound.  We recount the birding adventure thus far experienced over chips, homemade guacamole, and fajitas.  Conversations turn to good times and future plans.  Ken and Lisa own land in Almo and may one day settle there.  The draw for them has been the climbing, hiking, and spending time with friends, of which I am blessed to be among.  As the conversation wanes, we find ourselves sitting in the dark around the patio table, coyotes howl in the valley below.  A strange bird call is heard – not quite an owl or poorwill.  Lisa was hoping I would put to rest the nagging question of what it could be.  I haven’t a clue.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…

A time to chase vireos, and a time to be with friends
A time to attempt to figure out what time it is, and a time to lose all track of time
A time to obsess, and a time to let be what will be

I am convinced that Ken will find me the Golden-cheeked Warbler in the morning, and so sleep comes easily enough on the eastern slopes of the Edwards Plateau.

May 17, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 5: Chihuahuan Desert to Davis Mountains

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Birds, Parks, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 1:21 am
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McDonald’s Ranch, Hachita, New Mexico

Sunrise comes late to Cave Creek Canyon, but no matter; we are both up at dawn.  I follow the creek downstream in anticipation of encountering all the birds that migrated through last night’s dreams.  Harry catches up and we walk the closed campground loop.  The road and creekside campsites look as if they have just recently been rebuilt. A 500-year flood nearly erased all memory of the canyon on September 17-19, 2014. The creek is flowing harmlessly now, but today’s torrential winds channeled between the high cliffs remind us that the canyon keeps what it captures. It’s too breezy here for birds – except for one.  A lone Hermit Thrush bounces along the ground like a junco.  Big Year Bird #141 jumpstarts the day.

We’ve a long drive to Texas by sundown, but I am in no hurry to leave.  South Fork Cave Creek of the Chiricahua Mountains is as spectacular as Zion – both the National Park in Utah and the predestined resting place of the Saints.  I insist on birding the upstream trail into the Chiricahua Wilderness Area.  I first fell under the spell of South Fork on May 14, 1992, while birding with my mentor the late great Bob Jennings. The former director of the Oxley Nature Center in Tulsa deserves as much credit for my present-day obsession with birds as anyone.  It was here along this Sycamore-lined, crystalline creek that Bob introduced me to Elegant Trogon, Whiskered Screech-Owl, Strickland’s Woodpecker and Plumbeous Vireo.  Twenty years had passed between that visit and the one Harry and I made on March 28, 2012.  But now, Harry is insisting that he has never been here before.  When the Jeep reaches the end of the road, I realize why.  The 2014 flood has removed perhaps a mile of it and completely obliterated the picnic area.  South Fork has been rechanneled, regenerated, and reborn.

Harry remains back at the vehicle; I press on disoriented and somewhat disturbed of soul.  Time changes everything, creeks and protégés.  I did not expect this secret paradise to remember me, but I had hoped it would safeguard my recollections. Ah memories…

They spring up like flowers and wither away; like fleeting shadows, they do not endure.

The canyons will not keep them and nothing is the same – not even the birds.  I walk a few hundred yards deeper into the woods and collect new sentiments: Painted Redstart, Brown Creeper, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

If ever there is a place to forget the itinerary it is in Portal.  Here Cave Creek is liberated from the canyon, and the Jeep is bathed in sunlight. We park beside the Portal Store, Cafe & Lounge, ready for a real breakfast.  I navigate past the shelves of camping supplies and narrow aisle to a side room that is the crowded cafe.  Five mismatched wooden tables and small kitchen counter occupy the space.  One table is empty and we claim it.  Against one wall a local sits alone, offering advice to tourists a few feet away.  Another couple sits silently, lost in their cell phones.  I quickly realize the cafe offers free WiFi and take advantage of the opportunity to get word out to Susan – I’m still alive!  The menu has few items, but no matter.  I can almost taste the maple syrup dripping off my soon to be served short stack of pancakes. The waitress/cook/owner carves a groove in the wooden floor from the kitchen to our table, delivering over a gallon of coffee one cup at a time.  Outside the window, an Acorn Woodpecker fights with finches at the feeder.  A Cactus Wren calls forth a scorching sun. Time to go.

East-bound on New Mexico Highway 9, we pass Animas and unperceptively ascend the continental divide. Just before the so-called summit, a Greater Roadrunner …well…runs across the road, and I would expect nothing less.  This cuckoo is no dummy.  He can an outrun a birder, kill a rattlesnake, and live off the fluids of its prey in this parched and arid landscape.  I have no such skills, and am reminded that in a land of needles, fangs, and thorns, only the cautious and capable travel should venture ever deeper into the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert. We gas up at Playas junction just to be safe.

Ever east, we encounter no sign of human existence except the occasional west-bound green and white pick-up of the ubiquitous US Border Patrol. Agents seem to outnumber rancher and resident 6 to 1.  Even in Hachita, a rusted, dusted graveyard of a once noted town, reveals no humanity.  The 2010 census records 49 souls here (2015 Census lists 57!), but we see none of them. In seconds we are both entering and exiting town limits.  But that which catches my eye for a fraction of time, demands that we turn around and revisit the site.  At the crossroads the town lies south.  On the north is the typical posts and cross-pole entrance to a ranch – McDonald’s Ranch.  A pair of modern-day golden arches mark the way.  We drive through and dream of fries.  A corroded VW bug with four deflated tires sits permanently parked nearby with a scarecrow of sorts behind the wheel.  Back in town, we idle like vagrants, photographing old churches, adobe walls, and collapsed cabins. The streets are laid out 1st through 5th and A through C, just as an old rail town should be. I would not be exaggerating to compare present-day Hachita to a war-torn Syrian outpost, and yet I am strangely attracted to her.  No doubt full of stories of America’s Old Southwest, Hachita sprung like a desert flower, but now fleeting, withered, there is no reason to endure.  She no longer keeps her memories. There are no shadows at noon in the desert.

Like grand explorers we press on through Columbus, edging ever closer to “the pass.” Harry and I pass the time trying to guess where the newly designated Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument begins and ends.  Established less than two years ago by President Obama, the monument boasts:

…a rich diversity of Chihuahuan Desert wild lands and unique Pre-American, New Mexican, and American history including training sites for the Apollo Space Mission, the Butterfield Stagecoach Trail, Billy the Kid’s Outlaw Rock, Geronimo’s Cave, World War II aerial targets, and thousands of Native American petroglyphs and pictographs.

Soon enough we enter the backdoor to El Paso via Santa Teresa.  An angry wind whips the Mexican dust and flings it at Texas.  No wall can hold it back.  Poverty spreads across the south bank of the Rio Grande, while commerce and truckers rage on along both sides of I-10. This is my second trip through “the pass” and I still have nothing good to say about it.  I miss Hachita.

Milepost 85, I-10 diverges from the Rio Grande and aims us toward 6,891-foot Sierra Blancha. Somewhere west of the “white mountain” a Swainson’s Hawk glides alongside I-10 and checks off as #146.  These Hawks are on the move north from Central America, and I will see plenty of them over the Almo Valley in a few weeks. Desolation dominates until Van Horn, then resumes again to the Apache Mountains. Finally, at Kent, we leave the chaos of I-10 and settle into the verdant and pastoral Davis Mountains as seen from Texas Highway 118.  Time well spent this morning in Portal is costing us the opportunity to explore the McDonald Observatory.  We see the giant domed structures that house the telescopes, but visiting hours are over.  There is just enough day left to secure a campsite at Davis Mountains State Park.

For a Tuesday, the park seems quite full. We find a handful of empty sights in the most distant loop and settle on one with relative privacy.  Immediately, I am seeing first-of-year birds like Northern Cardinal, White-winged Dove, and Canyon Towhee. The routine plays out.  Find a site, take care of fees, and bird until dark.  After all, the whole idea of the trip is to bird the morning when birds are most active, drive during the day when birds are non-vocal and resting, bird all evening at the day’s final destination, then get up and start all over again.  The problem thus far has been too much driving, shaving off precious time in the morning and evening.  According to all my sources, Davis Mountains State Park is THE place to check-off Montezuma’s Quail, a strangely marked bird of grassy canyons mixed with oak.  My best source is the camp host, who informs me that about this time in the evening the quail occasionally wander out of the grass and onto the road.  The appropriate habitat just so happens to border the campground, and off I go, hoping for a quick pick and a new “lifer.”  When no birds appear, I hike up slope into the canyon on the off-chance I can flush one.  The host also says that you have to nearly step on one to get them to flush.  It’s a big hillside…may the odds be ever in my favor.

I wander back into camp, exhausted, skunked, and quail-less.  I rummage through the food pantry looking for something quick to satisfy the hunger, and watch Canyon Towhees bravely hop into the open door of my Jeep looking for something to satisfy their hunger.  “Sure, you can hitch a ride with me back to Almo.” A few minutes pass, and then it’s off again to the large oaks down toward the shower house.  The shower can wait, but this repetitive one-note call in series of four, then three, and finally two has me baffled.  I might need a crash course in Morris Code.  It’s almost too dark to make out field marks.  There he is!  I lock-on with steady aimed binoculars and follow his movement from the tree’s dark interior into the light of an outstretched branch.  Well I’ll be…. it’s a Black-crested Titmouse!  Formerly lumped with the Tufted Titmouse, this bird has been determined genetically to be a separate species, whose distribution in the US is restricted to central and west Texas. I end the evening with a totally new-to-me species!  Life Bird #461; Big Year Bird #151; and Trip Bird #98.

Take shower – check.
Gaze at stars – check.
Double-check the checklist – check.
Collapse in exhaustion – ……….

(Stay tuned for Epic Birding Trip Part 6: Davis Mountains to Edwards Plateau)

 

May 10, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 4: Birding Burro Creek to Cave Creek

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Birds, Parks, Travel, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 1:36 pm
324 - San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area

March 28, 2016.  Captain’s Log 5:15 a.m. I’m back in the birding business, and up at dawn to chase a familiar call, but one not heard for the last 11 months.  I’ve got a neotropical migrant within earshot and I’m going to “bag” him.  I zero in on the general location of the kaBRIK that is coming from a large mesquite tree near the campground entrance.  A pair of sparrows are hopping around under vegetative cover and kicking up dust.  They might be Rufous-crowned Sparrows, and I’ll have to give them a closer look, but first – what is that other bird?  There he is, perched much closer than expected – one of my favorite flycatchers – Ash-throated. But before I hastily write him down, I crack the Sibley’s and convince myself that he is not a Brown-crested Flycatcher, remembering that we have just entered into his range as well.

 

Harry is stowing away gear, and I am arranging it in the vehicle.  Both of us are ready to do some hiking and photography down at Burro Creek.  Shortly, we are on the road and crossing the bridge, looking for the best access to the creek.  But so much bird life springs forth that I simply must park in the middle of the bridge and spring into action.  First we see a Phainopepla, that odd member of the silky-flycatcher family that makes me think “black cardinal” though there is no such thing.  Too composed is the birder who can stoically observe one and not marvel.  They’re just different enough and practically one-of-a kind….but I do go on.

Bridge birding continues, as I chase a woodpecker across the deck, probably Gila, but he slips away before I can claim 100% assurance. My second Green Heron of the trip nervously watches us from the creek bank.  Harry sees him too and briefly shares my enthusiasm.  Violet-green swallows swarm over Burro Creek, which is already reduced from a flow to mostly large, perfectly glass-like pools.  The orange cliffs and azure sky reflect to the point of artistic exaggeration.  God doubles down on beauty.

I can hear a number of other birds singing deep in the riparian willows, but I’m not in the best position to view them.  We park at the trailhead and slowly wander beneath the canopy, honing in on the source of the songs. I know a Bell’s Vireo when I hear one, so I teach it to Harry.  I could mark this one down and move on, but I want to see it. He is not intimidated by our approach, and we both get satisfactory looks. Next I set my sights on a Lucy’s Warbler, who is much less cooperative.  Harry loses interest and walks back to the jeep.  I walk farther across the sandy wash – there’s just too much activity to ignore: Canyon Wren, Lesser Goldfinch, and a Great Egret. These make the trip list, but are already on the Big Year List.  Just as I decide to reverse course back to the jeep, the most heart-arresting bird flits in and perches on a small snag, less than 30 feet away….ahhh, Vermillion Flycatcher, the darling of the desert. If you were to ask which of the 750 species in North America are my favorite….I might put Mountain Bluebird, Scarlet Tanager, Prothonotary Warbler, and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in the top five, but Vermillion Flycatcher has no competition for number one.

“Do you want me to drive?” Harry asks.  Absolutely! I need some over-the-road study time and record keeping before I forget all that I have observed. I am oblivious to the desert landscape that unfolds along US Hwy 93; my head is buried in the book.  I surface about an hour later in Wickenburg, as we resupply on gas and ice for the cooler.  I am truly embracing the 80-degree weather and reflecting on reports from home over social media that the snow continues to pile up.

Back on the road again, we skirt most of Phoenix on the city’s west flank.  The trip-odometer registers 1,000 miles. Driving, driving…eventually Tucson comes in view.  As we approach Benson on I-10, we debate the options. Is there enough time to drop south to Sierra Vista and bird my favorite SE AZ hotspot (San Pedro), or do we rush on to Portal and get a couple more hours of birding in at our final destination of the day. I consider what species we might pass-up if we don’t visit the Riparian Conservation Area as originally planned months ago, and I weigh that against the possible birds I could get in Cave Creek with the extra hours. I am acutely aware of the fatal flaw in my planning – too much driving, not enough birding. I am not likely to see an Elegant Trogon at San Pedro, but chances are reasonable in the east slopes of the Chiricahua Mountains.  That possibility argues for the direct flight to the campsite. On the other hand, I’ve already dismissed several of the best SE AZ hotspots like Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, Patton’s Feeders, Madera Canyon, Florida Wash, and Ramsey Canyon.  San Pedro may be my last chance to list a Bendire’s Thrasher, and Abert’s Towhee, and Rufous-winged Sparrow.  The volunteers as San Pedro House also keep the feeders well-stocked and dozens of species hang out there and in the shadows of the giant Fremont Cottonwoods. Yes, we must go to San Pedro, there is just too much investment in time and money not to bird the Riparian Conservation Area.  Plus, I am so ready to get out of the jeep and stretch my legs.

As we pull into the parking lot, it is mid-day, siesta time for the birds. The professional birders are making their way back to vehicles.  I imagine all of the high-fives they were slapping after a productive morning of birding.  A large group of kids are playing, running, and screaming near the picnic area.  Yikes! I will have to bird somewhere else.  The seed feeders are empty.  The hummingbird feeders are mostly full, but after standing there for five minutes, nothing comes.  I bird like I used to fish – if nothing was biting, I kept moving upstream.

Putting about 200 yards distance between me and the home-schoolers, I walk a sandy path to the heart of the riparian zone. Peace, quiet, and no action.  I come to a long hidden pond where a coot swims in confusion.  He too is wondering where all the avian friends have gone.  I sit down and lean against a giant willow on the bank.  Sometimes, instead of chasing birds, it pays just to sit quietly and listen.  Often birds go silent at the approach of humans, but after sitting motionless for 3-5 minutes, they return to normal movement and song.  At the fourth minute, a family of seven (parents, grandparents, and kids) come brashly into my private world.  I smile, point out the coot, and joke with the kids.  Mom is apologetic.  “We are so sorry we have disturbed your quiet spot.” I assure them its ok.  I reap the joy of young children becoming excited at the distant look at a coot.  But still, I can’t waste time in unproductive areas.

The trail continues deep into the cottonwoods and finally I reach the trickling San Pedro River, almost narrow enough to jump across.  A mating pair of Vermillion Flycatchers are feeding on insects above the stream. They perch precisely where a ray of sunlight successfully penetrates the canopy and sets the red birds on fire. Out comes the Canon.  Also nearby a wren is chattering – possibly a Bewick’s.  And I think I hear a Yellow Warbler!  Here’s as good a place as any to settle down, watch, and wait.  A small bird works in and out of view along the creek-side vegetation.  The camera is ready, and the exposure settings have been tested. I’m prepped for a close encounter with one or more small birds almost upon me.  And then it happens.  Two pre-teen boys run up the trail, jump in the creek and have a make-shift sword fight with sticks.  Once traditional weapons lose their appeal, out comes the hand-sized rock grenades from the gravel bar.  Explosions ensue, water is tossed upon the bank, and all my birds have relocated upstream far from sight. There’s no point in getting frustrated, and the boys unknowingly become the subject of my photography.  In this age of endless video games, smart phones, and continuous academics, boys splashing in the creek, filled with imagination and exploration, gives me hope that the next generation might connect with nature and remember to protect it for their children.

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, one of my top five most favorite birding areas, is an epic fail, producing nothing more than Prryhuloxia and Chipping Sparrow for the Big Year List. I return to the parking lot to find Harry at the wheel, ready to get down the road to our campsite. He drives with a sense of purpose through the historic mining town of Bisbee, into the border city of Douglas, and up Arizona Highway 80.  Across the vast San Bernardino Valley, we can see the general location of Geronimo’s surrender of 1886 in the western foothills of the Peloncillo Mountains.  The highway enters New Mexico just briefly at the small but resolute town of Rodeo. I relieve Harry and drive the rest of the way into a setting sun and through the gateway village of Portal, AZ.

Every campsite is occupied except the best one at the end of the loop.  How is that possible? I roll out of the jeep, physically spent, and practically stumble over a pair of yellow-eyed Juncos.  A small mob of Mexican Jays departs as soon as they are convinced we plan to spend the night. Likewise, Acorn woodpecker takes a higher position on the dead snag arching over the campsite.  I really should be unpacking the jeep, as the canyon is already pinching out the light, but a piercing one-note squeak coming from the woods north of the campsite suddenly takes precedent. Stealthy and patient as a stray cat, I edge ever closer to the source.  Eye level, just a few feet away is a perched Blue-throated Hummingbird, not the least bit interested in me. Four species in less than 3 minutes are added to the Big Year list – twice as many as two hours at San Pedro.  One wonders how many I might have seen if we had arrived a few hours earlier.

Minutes later, darkness settles over our canyon campsite like a cotton quilt on dew. All the food is stowed away in the metal bear box provided.  It’s windy and I’m worn.  Harry has settled into his cot positioned against a giant monolith that offers some protection from the elements…and bears.  I crawl into the jeep and am rocked to sleep by gusts of wind, dreaming of Trogons and Red-faced Warblers that are surely waiting to greet me at sunrise.

(Stay tuned for Epic Birding Trip Part 5: Chihuahuan Desert to Davis Mountains)

May 5, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 3: Leaving Las Vegas

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Parks, Travel, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 2:52 am
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City of Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve

In a city that never sleeps, I did just fine.  With the dusty desert drive of yesterday washed from my skin and memory, I head down to the hotel lobby for the complimentary continental, and my first real cup of black joe in 48 hours.  Outside, the streets are strangely calm, but then again it is early Sunday morning, and many a partier has yet to reach a state of awareness let alone repentance.  I set the cell phone GPS to guide me from the Henderson Comfort Inn to the City of Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve, just three and a third miles away.  I travel like Moses through a parted Red Sea.  Within moments I am at the entrance sign as inviting as a flashing neon on the east bank of the Jordan: “Welcome (Birders) to the Promised Land.”

More appealing than the Bellagio, Paris Las Vegas, and the Luxor combined, is the 100 acres of sewage lagoons spread out before me.  After a quick sign-in (basically a release form) at the office, I proceed to the first pond and immediately list Common Gallinule.  Verdins make sharp kissing sounds from the trees around me. Check! Tree and Rough-winged Swallows dart to and fro.  A Gambel’s Quail nearly runs across my feet.  Cinnamon and Green-winged Teal paddle nonchalantly near the island that is being guarded by a dozen shovelers.  It’s a cornucopia of avian delights.  I can’t check them off the list fast enough. I mark one, and suddenly two more species pop into view!  The preserve boasts a checklist of 275 species.  I see 33 within the first hour, just a short walk from the visitor center.

Between pond #2 and #4 is oddly not pond #3, but a dry basin with a few small trees and brush. I work them thoroughly and tease out great photo images of Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and Black Phoebe. In the northwest corner of pond #6, a Green Heron stands perfectly motionless while a gallinule pokes at the submerged vegetation within a few feet of him.  The Green Heron is an uncommon, yet permanent resident of the preserve, according to the checklist, but the guides at the visitor center are surprised to learn that I have observed one.  “Did you get a photo of it?” they ask.  As a matter of fact, I did, and then call it up on the camera.  “Sure enough.”  Birders challenge birders all the time on ID, but a crisp clear photo usually settles the matter quickly.

The preserve has very knowledgeable guides, and I drill them for information about where to see this or that.  Tired from the walk, I find a shady picnic table just outside the center and chat with birders who come and go.  Some are newbies, excited at their first sighting of a mallard, others like me aim cameras at the feeders, hoping for a stellar shot of a Costa’s Hummingbird.  Some families walk passed with no interests in birds at all, but merely the walk itself.  The older guide, probably in his late 70’s shares his knowledge with a couple he has just led around the ponds.  I eavesdrop and glean all the inside information.

Suddenly the Costa’s arrives, bold and beautiful.  The young husband and wife next to me begin to pull the triggers on their cameras, as do I.  Stunning!  Vegas is full of contradictions and anomalies.  A city known for its decadence, depravity, gambling, prostitution, crime and all things shameful, is also filled with loving families, generous hotel clerks, SOS Christian radio, strange beauty (like birds on sewage lagoons), and soul-stirring architecture that rises from the red-rock desert to the deep blue door of heaven itself.  Packing up, I muse privately – This preserve is certainly one of the top three most enjoyable places I have birded in a decade.

By 11:30 a.m. the city has awakened and the arteries slowly clog.  I am making my way to McCarron International Airport to pick up Harry, long-time friend and colleague who is flying in from XNA (Northwest Arkansas).  He will join me for the eastbound leg of this epic birding adventure.  We were both interpretive naturalists at one of Arkansas’ finest – Devil’s Den State Park.  During my nearly five and a half years deep in Lee Creek Valley of the Boston Mountains Plateau, Harry and I took a number of cross country adventures together.  We backpacked the Maroon Bells, the Needles District of Canyonlands (as well as jeeping the Maze District), hiked the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend, and many others.  In recent years, age has physically reduced us to shorter hikes and longer auto tours, but the important thing is that we continue to explore the natural, historic, and geographic.  Harry is not a birder, but there are many other distractions for him along the drive.  I’ve brought a second pair of binoculars on the long shot that he might want to convert.  Hey, it’s Vegas; you never know.

We hone in on each other’s locations via cell phones.  “I am over here by door number 3.”  “OK, I am over by the luggage carousel.”  Within minutes we are exciting the relatively safe concrete parking structure and heading back into the fray.  Harry is disoriented, and I am winging it without a fully-functional co-pilot.  We have all the time in the world.  There’s no harm in simply taking the open road that seems most likely to extract us from the city.  However, after five minutes westbound on the Bruce Woodbury Beltway neither of us feel quite right about our choice.  Being men, self-proclaimed geographers, and pathfinders (Note: my middle name is Fremont), we are reluctant to consult maps or GPS phone apps. Fortunately, a Walmart appears near an off-ramp and we decide to stock up the food pantry, ….and sure, why not check the map while we’re parked.

Apparently, we were well on our way in the complete opposite direction. And yet divine guidance must be playing a part.  Not only do we resupply and get our wits together, but I also feel this gnawing in my gut to purchase a set of tires.  It turns out that buying tires on a Sunday afternoon in Walmart is a fairly easy process – no waiting, not even in Vegas.  30 minutes later with peace of mind, we are heading the opposite and correct direction on I-215, latching on for dear life to US Hwy 93 South to Kingman.  175 miles south of electric glow and completely exhausted, we roll into the BLM-managed desert campground of Burro Creek.  The last pink hue of dusk fades, and we soon find ourselves in the dark.  I am too wired from the drive to fall asleep, but have practically no energy to fix supper.  On the other hand I haven’t eaten a hot meal since last Thursday, and my new camp stove is begging for a trial run.  Stew for me and stars for Harry.  It’s a perfect night for gazing.  He sits in the camp chair, beer in hand mumbling philosophies and good-time memories while I burn my lips on over-cooked beef chunks and potatoes.  A few unfamiliar birds are calling, but they will just have to wait until tomorrow.  The International Space Station passes overhead; the galaxy displays; but sleep ultimately wins.

(Stay Tuned for Epic Birding Trip Part 4: Birding Burro Creek to Cave Creek)

 

 

April 24, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 2: What Happens in Vegas…

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Birds, Parks, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 12:03 am
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Ruby Lake NWR below the Ruby Range

Snow.  Are you kidding me?  At least I am headed in the right direction – south to Nevada, Arizona, and Texas.  Still, I’m a bit concerned about what it might be doing down at Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge where I will spend the first night of this 15-day epic birding trip.  Setting anxiety aside, the Jeep rolls across the cattle guard that separates Idaho from Utah.  The loud metal clang flushes the second bird of the trip – Black-billed Magpie.  I might as well check him off early.  Quick to follow are sightings of Horned Lark, Common Raven, and European Starling.  Common birds help prop up a healthy trip list.

The Jeep bounces down the Lynn Road, reaching the all but abandoned community of Lynn.  A right-hand turn takes me up the steep grade that levels at 6,960-foot Cotton Thomas Pass.  I pause to take a few photos of the Goose Creek Mountain peaks and reflect on the utter absence of human beings and the absurdity of a roadside sign that reads:

NO TRESSPASSING
PATROLLED HOURLY

You would have to be a Columbian drug lord to be that paranoid.  I haven’t passed a single vehicle in over 45 minutes, not even as I roll through one of my favorite (not-giving-up-the-ghost) towns in Utah – Grouse Creek.  This unofficial county seat of northwest Box Elder County has a small elementary school, LDS Ward, post office, and the Grouse Creek Mall, a one-room store that boasts “Grouse Creek Mall Has It All.”  A few years back I stopped in for some road snacks.  The Mall did have it all…but only one of each.  I bought the last Mountain Dew, the last peanut butter crackers, and (you guessed it) the last Payday candy bar.  I suppose it’s my fault that they had to drive to Wells, Nevada and resupply.

The high desert is a battle ground between dry air and snow squalls.  As I turn west on Utah Highway 30 (which quickly becomes Nevada Highway 233), the snow surrenders.  Under partly cloudy skies, I push on through one of Nevada’s barely-breathing cattle towns – Montello.  The last census guessed about 84 souls, but in its railroad heyday Montello boasted ten times that. I have passed through Montello a dozen times in 20 years and always marvel at the never-say-die persistence of the town’s two bars and small market. However, I take it as a bad omen for them when listing Trip Bird #11 Turkey Vulture here. Twenty-one miles later, with 10,716-foot Pilot Peak constantly in view, I meet I-80 at the recently deceased dry-spot called Oasis. Next stop Wells.

This stretch of I-80 offers little to write home about, unless you are one of the minimum security offenders placed at the Wells Conservation Camp within view of the highway.  Interstate signs read:

PRISON AREA
HITCHHIKING PROHIBITED

Suddenly, I remember how bald my tires are.  Somewhere on the downhill side of Pequop Summit it hits me.  I forgot to sign everyone’s digital timesheets before leaving the office!  I had caught up all of my email correspondence and left Carl in charge for the next 15 days…but he won’t be able to take care of this duty due to security protocols.  Think…..I have my cell phone with me…..I have my laptop.  I do my best thinking when driving through Nowhere, Nevada.  I also promised myself to leave the car radio off and CD player empty the entire trip.  I want to hear my own thoughts.  I want to see what comes to mind.  I want to let God speak to me through the silence. Ah ha! There’s a McDonalds up in Wells.  I’ll pull into the parking lot, skim the WiFi and take care of this final chore.  I don’t expect to be near the internet for a few days, and my cell phone data plan is hit and miss in these parts.

After topping off the tank in Wells, I drop south on US 93, marveling at the scenic grandeur of 11,306-foot Hole in the Mountain Peak.  By the time I reach Nevada Highway 229, The clouds yield to the afternoon sun, and snow is a distant memory. The highway turns north and over Secret Pass, but I steer south on Ruby Valley Road, along the east side of the Ruby Range.  The awesome grandeur of the Rubies, from Verdi and Liberty Peaks to King and Tipton Peaks (all in excess of 10,000 feet), rival that of any Rocky Mountain Range.  They are to me among the most seductive ranges, nursing my life-long addiction to mountains.

I’ve never met a mountain I did not quickly like
Nor one which did not whisper as bidding me to hike
I have yet to cross a stream not flowing in a dream
Or have failed to meet Your peaks -aflamed by morning beam
I’ve treasured all Your colors: the alpine fl’rs of spring
and sung the songs from mem’ry that all Your birds do sing
Now own my heart eternal, I promise and recount
I will forever climb them, yet never to surmount

Soon the shallow and deeply blue waters of Ruby Lake appear, and I ready the binoculars and camera for what I hope will be the spillway of rapid sightings and hurried listing. First comes Trip Bird #13 Canada Goose, followed by Mallard and coot. Ugh.  I could see these anywhere!  I really didn’t need to drive all this way for the dandelions of the bird world.  But then I hear them: the raucous and rasping rattle of two First-of-year (FOY) Yellow-headed Blackbirds. The male perches perfectly in the sunlight, but my Canon misfires.  Then I remember the birder’s meme – Birders bird, and photographers photograph – one must decide who they will be to maximize success.  I put down the camera and my field of view invites a preponderance of waterfowl. They are all here – teal, bufflehead, ruddy, redhead, ring-necked, etc.

Entirely too soon, the sun slips behind Sherman Mountain.  It’s time to secure a campsite in South Ruby Campground, Humboldt National Forest.  I find site #2 tucked away into the pinyon-juniper woodland and to my liking. Over the howling wind, I hear the familiar sounds of home – Pinyon Jay, Western Scrub-Jay and Mountain Chickadee.  Although my Nevada sky is clear, these winds are hurried north by a storm system exploding over southern Idaho.  The National Weather Service is predicting more than a foot of wet snow there over the next few days.  It is cold here too, and I opt for the added shelter of the Jeep.  My body heat will be retained better in the vehicle than tent; plus, I am too lazy to set it up.  I record my sightings, feast on a can of tuna, and pay one last visit to the comfort station.  I have tallied an unimpressive list of 27 birds for the trip, and only one FOY.  One by one the stars appear; their gravitational pull slowly overpower my eyelids.

Saturday, March 26, 6:05 a.m.  I have spent the last two hours fighting what campers often describe as the dreaded piss-shivers. The pre-dawn morning bottoms out at 15 degrees, and I can no longer neglect the biology of the bladder. The most frustrating malady of winter camping is the precise moment you are forced to choose between internal physical relief or bodily warmth, death by uromysitisis poisoning or hypothermia. I can hear a Great Horned Owl laughing all the way to the comfort station.  Minutes later, with the Jeep’s heater at max, I am toasty, packed, and driving down to the wetlands.  I want to photograph the moonbeams bouncing off the lake, catch the sunrise, and list a few more birds.

I depart the refuge with another dozen species, including Big Year Bird #115 Savannah Sparrow. Not far down the gravel road (and still within the refuge) I am pleasantly surprised to find Fort Ruby National Historic Site (1862-1869). There’s not much here beyond the wayside exhibits, an old cabin, and a vast and lonely landscape.  The fort was intended to thwart skirmishes between California-bound emigrants and Shoshone warriors.  The small military presence also lent security to the Pony Express that ran between Salt Lake City and Carson City.  The War Department called Fort Ruby the “worst post in the west” probably for all the same reasons I am enjoying the place – silence, desolation, a place of undistracted contemplation.  Trip Bird #40 Sage Thrasher warbles in the weeds.  Check!  Moving on.

I proceed south on White Pine County Road 3 (I have no idea where county roads 1,2, or 4 could possibly be).  There are no directional signs or civilization south of the fort. The road eventually leaves the Ruby Valley, crosses over the Maverick Springs Range and enters the accurately-named Long Valley.  I encounter no sign of human life until passing through the Butte Mountains and into the north end of Jakey Valley.  Here, US 50 (aka the loneliest highway in America) leads me east into Ely.  This desolate and almost entirely graveled route covered a distance of 95 miles, and admittedly, I was ready for company.  In downtown Ely, I locate the city park and partake of crackers, a trail mix bar, and water-packed mandarin oranges.

The Jeep now fueled, I take the road more traveled (US Hwy 93 South) toward Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge.  I had hoped to take US Hwy 6 to Nevada Hwy 318 and bird the wildlife management areas from Kirch to Key Pittman, but made a tactical decision to get to Pahranagat as soon as possible.  I am beginning to realize that I need about 20% less driving and 25% more birding.  So when in Nevada, take a gamble.  I’m placing all my hopes on a productive return at the federal refuge.  Upon reaching Cathedral Gorge State Park, I whip in at the overlook.  Tired from driving and depressed that I haven’t seen a trip bird in nearly five hours, I hope to add one on the quick.  Not even a raven greets me.  I take a few scenic photos for the journal, and continue.

Finally, just south of Alamo, the cool waters of Upper Pahranagat Lake can be seen.  I have arrived in time to relax, bird from a secluded campsite, and even set up the tent.  I have also arrived in time to discover that the few dozen campsites are packed with families from Las Vegas on a Spring Break Saturday night.  One by one I drive past perfect campsite, perfectly taken.  At the end of the loop.  I park and walk off into the cottonwoods, hoping for a woodpecker and some idea of what to do next.

Down the highway a few miles is the newly-built and architecturally pleasing visitor center.  I fully expect it to be closed, but then discover that I am no longer on Mountain Time, and haven’t been since 2 p.m. yesterday!  The center is open, and the volunteer at the desk is most helpful with advise.  “I am sorry, I know of no place to camp south of the refuge – not even a private RV park.”  She continues, “I suppose you could drive into the Desert National Wildlife Range on Corn Creek Road for a mile or two and find a level place to park, but it’s a four-wheel drive.”  I consider my tires, and quickly discount that option.

I am 90 miles from Las Vegas.  I just won an extra hour.  Perhaps this is the right time to blow my emergency motel stash and “camp” in a Super 8.  As I cover the desolate miles east of the Sheep Range, I can’t help but think of all the bodies that might have been buried here in a season of CSI.  That cheap motel is looking even better. My plan is to secure a motel on the outskirts of the city, but too soon I am swept into the traffic and carried downstream to the heart of the metropolis, eddying-out a few blocks south of the Strip.  Side streets flooded with vehicles form impenetrable log-jams.  The city pulls me under, and I find myself gasping for air.  After treading for an hour, I swim to a Walmart parking lot that rises above the chaos like an island oasis.  I am done for.  I call Susan.  “How’s it going she says cheerfully.”  In my best exhausted and whiny voice I say, “I can’t find a hotel!”  ….[silence]….”You’re in Las Vegas and you can’t find a hotel? Do you hear yourself? Look around…what do you see?”  “I think I see a Comfort Inn,” I answer sheepishly.  Go get you a room, forget the cost, and just regroup tomorrow.”  Such words of wisdom completely refresh me, and soon I am collapsed in a sea of pillows in an air-conditioned suite.

Total birds after 8 a.m. – 0
Total miles driven today – 400
Total hours birding after Ruby Lake NWR – .1

But tomorrow is another day, and my luck is bound to change.  I’m banking on an entire morning at the City of Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve. Somewhere in a distant casino, just before fading off to sleep, I hear a gambler jostling the dice and shouting, “Come on baby, daddy needs a new bird!”

(Stay tuned for Birding Big Trip Part III: Leaving Las Vegas)

April 15, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 1: Strategery by the Numbers

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Birds, Parks, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 11:14 pm
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The Epic Big Year Birding Trip begins!

Time is a ruthless taskmaster, and the calendar an obnoxious billboard; both reminding me that the appointed date of departure for the one big birding trip this year is looming.  Since early winter 2015, I have been planning meticulously (some might say obsessively) every detail and every mile.  I have engineered the itinerary forwards and back, affirming key dates where I need to be and when, yet trying to work in enough flexibility to stay longer or leave sooner depending on how cooperative the birds are.  I know birds.  They are prone to misbehave and fail to meet me at the designated locations.  If ever there is a time to be bird-brained, it is this week. I simply must think like them, for I am scheduled to take flight at noon, Friday, March 25. My devious plan to see 200 species has to be flawless.

If planning a 5,000-mile/15-day birding trip is not enough, add to it the pressure to keep up the big year list, lest I fall horribly behind my competitors.  Thankfully, I reach my 100th bird on February 21.  The American Dipper presents himself without prompting at the Cassia Creek bridge in Elba.  Shortly thereafter, #101 Golden-crowned Kinglet fidgits in a nearby willow.  But then I suffer through an 11-day dry-spell until Say’s Phoebe and Sandhill Crane migrate in.  All told, my pre-trip total is a mere 113.  My competitors had that many before leap day!  I try to console myself with the fact that I only had 94 at this point in the chase back in 2012, but then remember that I was only 2 behind in 2014.  No, the only consolation I relish is the knowledge that I will get many, many birds on this trip.

Work is unrelenting.  I put in the overtime to wrap up various projects and assignments in anticipation of the prolonged absence.  Conference calls, business trips, and the incessant assembly line of email remind me of the Wac-A-Mole arcade game.  Just when I am sure I have them all answered, four more pop up.  And then there are the honey-do’s, the car repairs, and other off-duty responsibilities.  I still need to buy a camp stove, food, and withdraw my stash of mad-money from the credit union.  Finally, I need to just sit down and finish my itinerary!

The Big Year Birding Trip revolves around two key species: Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler – both endangered species, both potential lifers, and both arriving even now to the Edwards Plateau west of Austin and San Antonio, Texas. The “strategery” of the trip is to reach the area a few days after the first arrivals are typically reported in eBird and soon enough to find them by call and song.  If they pair up and stop singing I’m doomed.  Departing on March 25, gives me just enough time prior to that event to bird my way down through Nevada, Arizona and along the US-Mexico border.  If all goes well, I’ll have a few days in Southeast Arizona to raise the Big-Year tally to 150 or better.  I really don’t know what to expect in the Davis Mountains, but I’ll need a day there just to keep from reaching the Edwards Plateau too soon.

If after bagging the vireo and warbler, and if the plan is still intact, I will race for the border along the Rio Grande and “mine for gold.”  Every birder knows that a serious big year demands a visit to the mecca of hotspots between Laredo and Port Isabel.  Emerging from there, I should be sitting around 200 if I time it perfectly with the neotropical migration.  As I bird my way up the gulf coast from Padre Island to High Island, I’m counting on another 30.  Traveling through NE Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, I could keep raking in the migrants, or at least score 25-30 common birds of the eastern US.  After a day or two of downtime with family in NW Arkansas, I will turn my attention to the Great Plains of Oklahoma, southern Rockies of Colorado, and finally the Colorado Plateau of Utah.

Hours at the computer, I rub my eyes and wonder; have I picked the right refuges, parks, and hotspots?  Have I given adequate time at each stop to make the trip count?  I tally the miles, estimate the cost of gasoline, project the price of camping and food.  I even pad the budget with three random nights in a cheap motel, knowing I won’t be able to live with myself for two weeks without the occasional shower.  In addition to these logistical fear, I worry – have I studied enough?  I cannot afford to spend precious minutes in the field thumbing through field guides just to decide whether I am looking at a Bell’s Vireo or a Gray Warbler.  I need to know that a Cassin’s Kingbird in spring along the banks of the lower Rio Grande is less likely to be seen than a Couch’s Kingbird.  But I also need to remain vigilant, because the best part of birding is catching up to and confirming the presence of a species that by all accounts should never be where it is.  some birds ignore the books and statistics and just do their own thing.

Finally, there are these lingering fears: will Susan be ok while I am gone? Will these Jeep tires really last another 5,000 miles; will I fall victim to highway robbery? (I watch too many movies).  She assures me that she will be ok.  I have far less confidence in the tires.  Thursday night, March 24, I fold and pack the last load of laundry, and add the duffle bag to an already bulging cargo hold.  Fifteen days on the road in spring…one cannot be sure if they will need a parka or pair of shorts – so both make the trip.

Friday, March 25: I spend the first half of the day whacking the last few moles.  I set the out-of-office feature on my phone and email app as a vain attempt to reduce the workload that will be waiting for me on the other side of this trip.  And then it happens…noon.  I point the Jeep south toward the nearly 60 miles of dirt road between me and the Nevada state line.  I haven’t a care in my mind, except the self-imposed pressure to get the birds. I make it a rule not to count any birds for the trip list until I travel the four miles to the Utah border.  Moments later with the Almo Valley in the rear-view mirror, I reach the boundary and grab my pen and notebook: Trip bird #1 – Mountain Bluebird. The male takes quick flight without a sound. A hush falls over the high desert.  It begins to snow.

(Stay tuned for Epic Birding Trip Part 2: What happens in Vegas….)

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