I’ll bet you thought this would be yet another blog called Quetzal Quest.
Arizona rarities. They keep drawing me back. I stopped seeing patients back in March due to the pandemic, leaving a lot of time to think about chasing rarities. To be honest I’m usually thinking about chasing rarities, but back then I had even more time to do so, and so many of us have been lamenting the trips they had planned that were cancelled.
With reports of Crescent-chested Warbler and Eared Quetzal, thoughts and discussions revolved around the "how to's". Jason Hornbill of Pennsylvania revealed to me at the site of the Terek Sandpiper that he and some co-conspirators rented a car and drove 36 hrs to try for the EAQU, but disastrously dipped. Doing so would avoid the confined space of air travel, but one must also dedicate enough time to locate birds in a huge area.
That they had done so was encouraging and I probably could have mustered a posse. Agonizingly, I had brought in my car for a recall shortly prior with the dealership telling me: “You can wait for the repair which should only take a few hours.” I am not one to want to wait around so I opted for a loaner car, and it was a good thing I did. “We still haven’t gotten the parts” meant that they had my car for 3 weeks; had I known in advance I too would have driven to Arizona.
Bob Prothonotary was very interested in going for the Quetzal. He heard, but didn't see the bird ca. 40 years ago. No ‘heard only’ birds for him. He’s also trying to see all of the Trogon family, and the EAQU is supposed to be hard to see even where it occurs.
|Bob hopes to see a Quetzal|
|Spotted Towhee - Spohee|
Originally being seen in Herb Martyr campground ca. 6 miles away as the Quetzal flies, flash forward and the birds are relocated in Rucker Canyon. Once again Bob and I discussed going, and finalized plans.
My cat likes to wake me at 3am by biting my hand. Why the heck do I have a cat? Beats me, or bites me, whatever... Thursday 9/3/20 I woke up without cat biting me at 3am, but an hour earlier than planned. Better than too late, but I would have wanted a bit more sleep. I drove to queens for a ride to the airport from a friend. Thankfully she didn’t mind getting up early to take me the rest of the way to the airport with a convenient place to park my car. LIRR not my favorite...
Using the AA app, I had downloaded my boarding pass. I went through TSA screening and went to the gate as indicated. Shortly thereafter Bob texted me, asking where I was. "At the gate" I said. He asked why he couldn't see me, as he 'too' was at the gate, and that was when I discovered that they had switched gates but not updated my boarding pass. [expletives deleted] Mishap 1.
The flight was uneventful. Arizona had been taken off the 'don't go there' list, and for myself I was wearing a p100 respirator providing much more filtration than the disposable non air-tight disposable masks. A connecting flight to Tucson was completed without a hitch as we both chose carry-on versus checked bags, but abstrusely was $140 less expensive than had we gotten off earlier in Phoenix. I sure don't understand the math...
So we proceeded to retrieve our rental car, only to be told that there is no shuttle to the off site location where it was. WTF!!!??? I was livid, and lost it at enterprise for not disclosing that I would have to take a cab there for that rate; it being significantly more at the airport location. I was persuasive and they acquiesced giving me the same car at the same rate. Mishap 2
In the saddle and psyched, we bolted out of town for our first stop: a Walmart in Benson on the way eastward. For future reference, I will get a few disposable coolers for drinks and food. South east Arizona is quite barren with respect to services such as food, lodging, gas, and especially cell service. Definitely will plan to get food for lunches and dinner in case staying put was in order rather than departure for a long ride to places that close early.
Semper Acupium! We birded along the way to Rucker canyon, with a stop at a farm with a big kettle of Swainson's and Short-tailed Hawks. Other 'road' birds were Red-tailed Hawk, Western Kingbird, Barn Swallow, Rock Pigeon, White-winged Dove, Curve-billed Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, and Great-tailed Grackle.
Continuing on, we arrived at Rucker Canyon campground. On the way other birders stopped to give us intel and advice on how to follow the trail. Despite this it was easy to get side tracked, and at the first dry creek crossing we went astray. Bob realized this though and after back tracking we spotted the cairns to follow. Advice to anyone using this for your trip: look left and right constantly for cairns because its easy to pass some of them up and get waylaid.
This place is a beautiful canyon and a wonderful place to hike. Birds seen this day were Western Wood-Pewee, Black Phoebe, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Northern Flicker, Mexican Jay , Hutton's Vireo, Mexican Chickadee, Bridled Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Lesser Goldfinch, Yellow-eyed Junco, MacGillivray's Warbler, Painted Redstart, Western Tanager, American Robin, Rufous Hummingbird, Common Raven, and Black-headed Grosbeak. we stayed til dark, hoping... hoping... but it was not to be, despite having heard that the bird was seen that day around noon. We arrived a bit too late. Driving the dirt road on our way to Portal for the night, we scared up some Common Poorwill.
Said the straight man to the late birders
Where have you been?
I've been here and I've been there
And I've been in between.
I talk to the wind
My words are all carried away
I talk to the wind
The wind does not tell me where the Quetzal is.
We arrived at the Portal Peak Lodge in the dark. Exhausted, a shower was welcome to wash away the dust, sweat, and disappointment. I fell fast asleep, dreaming of a better outcome the next day.
Portal is right next to the New Mexico border, and to get there one passes through New Mexico. This has the effect of resetting the cell phone's clock to mountain time, an hour later than Arizona time. This affected us when I set the alarm for 4am later to discover that it was in effect 3am AZ time! When we arrived at Rucker and it was still dark it was because it was 5am, not 6am as thought. Doh!
Bert from Philadelphia was there when we arrived, and as we had been there the day before, we navigated the route with the help of my flashlight. The trail follows the bottom of the valley which is also a rocky creek bed. With all the downed trees about one can only imagine the tremendous force that the monsoon rains scour their way down from the peaks.
The trail crosses or parallels the creek. At the third crossing or so Bob heard one of the EAQU call, as did Bert. We could not locate them though, and we continued on. One of the places we stopped on our walks up and down the trail was the scree where it was said most of the sightings had been. It was just past two very large fallen trees that blocked the trail.
Birders accumulated here, as this was reported as a reliable site. Alex from Nevada came up the trail and joined us, and revealed that he was ( somehow) hearing the birds way up the top of the ridge that we were at the bottom of. Bob also said he was able to hear them, and after a while Alex continued further on the trail. We should have tagged along!!
He went to the next scree and scaled the steep slope and spotted the birds.
With the heat, elevation of 6000'+/-, and steepness of the trail it imparted more difficulty than walking a similar distance on lever terrain. for 6 or so hours we birded up and down. Some time around 1pm Bob and I decided to head back to the car for lunch, while Bert decided to stay put. This was his second trip out to AZ for this bird.
We ate, and lamented our fatigue and muscle soreness from all the walking and lack of sleep. We tried reclining on picnic table benches, but we both found it too uncomfortable. Eventually we decided to head back up the trail. This is when Alex told us about his success...
Up about two thirds of the way we encountered Bert who had just seen the bird a short way up the trail! We made haste, and encountered other characters who said the same thing; each time stating that the bird was further along...
Now further along than we had ever been, another birder, saying the same thing, said that: "the Canada Girl and an older guy were searching ( where else ) further along. Bob and I went as far as we could, because we missed where the trail diverted. Tired, we plaintively called out: "Canada Girl". She didn't hear us, but shortly there after appeared, and relayed her lack of success. She had caught up to others on the bird but moments too late and only heard the birds but did not see them before they flew off yet further along.
I inquired if she wanted to make another attempt with us, but she declined as she was out of water. I offered her one of mine, and the three of us started back down, birding as we went. Shortly though, another birder made his way down from beyond where we had gone and said the same tormenting information: the bird was up the trail, being photographed so just continue to the sand bar and you'll see them. We did, heading back up the canyon yet again. Tortuously. In the heat, and well beyond but we never came across the birds or others.
The three of us rested at this point ca. 3 miles up the trail, but none of us willing to go further. Bob and I were impressed with Canada Girl's energy and pace. She confirmed to me that Canada requires you to wrestle a polar bear to pass gym class. And her name was Diana by the way.
The three of us made our way back to the parking area as it was getting late. The march of shame, take two. "To the pain means the first thing you will lose will be your feet below the ankles."
Civilization to acquire food was very limited but we got microwave pizza for dinner and sandwiches for the next day and filled up gas. On the way Gamble's Quail and Say's Phoebe was seen. Then we made haste back to the hotel for much needed rest and contemplation of another attempt. Of course we would.
The morning was supposed to begin at 5am, but thwarted by mountain time again, ( when did the clock reset?) we got up at 4 instead of 5 as thought. Doh! But better early than late and we reprized the all to familiar by now route to the canyon. A mile before the trail parking area, we passed a 16 y/o kid huffing it from his camp site to the same place. We parked, and I got out to put on my hiking boots. Then as we began to walk up the trail there was the kid! He ran up the road at 1 mile high. Oh, to be a teen again with that energy.
Along the trail we met up again with the California dudes, the guy from Florida, the guys from Texas, and a few other minor characters. On the way I saw a large raptor and called out to the others: "get on that bird" and as suspected it was a Zone-tailed Hawk. We walked on to the sand bar area, and heard a Northern Pygmy Owl. As we tried to locate it, a Stellar's Jay began to call. Bob had walked across the creek bed to try if he could find the Owl, or other birds, and then drama unfolded.
A local? birder inquired why was someone walking out in the creek bed, and I replied that he was looking for the Owl. This guy said that he heard the EAQU call, and that he was angry that someone was out trying to get too close. Texas guy told him that the call was the Jay, not the Quetzal, so then he went on a rant about the ebird report from the day before by the Nevada guy who was the one who located them. He continued: "If I find that guy I'm gonna kick his ass, because that's why the birds had left the Herb Martyr area." I told him: "Maybe. Or maybe they just flew 5 miles over to this canyon because they can. Not to mention that yesterday all the many people who saw the birds reported that they were confiding and never appeared to be concerned by the presence of people".
He left in a huff and continued up the trail, and the others did as well. Apparently some feel that birders shouldn't go off trail, but the trail and the creek bed were essentially one and the same. Birders getting their panties in a bunch, oh yay.
Bob and I went back down and decided to wait at 'the reliable place' by the two large fallen trees. On the way lots of Wilson's Warblers were kicked up, as well as some MacGillivray's warblers. Bob observed that Mourning and Connecticut are supreme skulkers, while the MacGillivray's were more confiding. And we settled down and waited...
Not too long later, Bob noticed a group of folks down the trail and he though he heard the call of the Quetzal. I said "lets go and see". And in 2 minutes we had them point to where the birds were sitting!
And the birds continued up the canyon and stopped where else? The 'reliable spot', right where we had been sitting. Florida guy walked up and we pointed out the bird, and he told us the others were just a ways up the trail. Having gotten satisfying looks, Bob ran off to alert them. The California dudes, Texas guys, et al got looks and we bumped fists, elbows, or just let out loud exclamations.
After nice looks and ample photographic opportunity, I declared lets go; we've seen pretty much every species in the canyon already, and I wouldn't mind relaxing. There was no argument. We were so relieved that we got the bird especially having agonizing that we might dip big time. Nevertheless, persistence pays! Bob spotted a Mountain Kingsnake, which California guy grabbed. Back at the parking area we ate lunch and I toasted our success with some Cazadores Tequila.
Returning to Portal we were not terribly surprised that no place had any vacancies. We birded the area and added several more species especially hummingbirds at Cave Creek Ranch, but not the Berylline. The evening was capped by a celebratory dinner and beer at the Portal Peak Lodge as well as being entertained by live music. Some of the species seen were Broad-billed Hummingbird, Blue-throated Mountain-gem, Calliope Hummingbird, Cooper's Hawk, Pyrrhuloxia, Anna's Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird.
|Good tunes by the Heather "Lil Mama" Hardy Band|
|Ribs & a Pale Ale Mmmmmm|
Our last night we spent in Willcox with the alarm set for 7am. Preparing my items for travel, distress surfaced when I realized the tequila would not be able to be carried on. My solution was to get several small containers at the dollar store. Bob however, was convinced the TSA would find and confiscate them. "Whatever" I said.
Consuming our breakfast in no hurry, and then dumping out all the empty water bottles in the car, next stop was nearby Cochise lake proving to be a good birding stop. Huge numbers of Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, Wilson's Phalaropes, Mexican Ducks, Mallards, were there in addition to Least, Stilt, Baird's, Pectoral, and Stilt Sandpipers. Sora, Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron and Yellow-headed Blackbird were also present.
At the airport the tequila containers went through no problem. They did find my Swiss Army knife that I forgot was in my toiletry bag, and not seen on the way to Arizona. Grrr.
Ultimately the trip was a success, though it didn't go quite as planned. Targeting the Quetzal meant we had to skip Guadeloupe Canyon for Black-capped Gnatcatcher, but the Quetzal was more important. Seen were 100 trip birds, 11 Arizona birds and one life bird; the Eared Quetzal.