Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Big Day

The plan was to start early, bird hard for 12 hours, try for 100 species and get my year list close to or over 300 by the end of the day.
Melody Kehl, my exuberant Arizona birding guide, was at the hotel at 5:58 on Wednesday morning. I was in a bit of a tizzy, as I couldn't find my camera memory card. Jeez! Not again. I had a faulty card in The Dry Tortugas and now my new, not inexpensive, memory card was missing. I had taken it out to upload the Ash Canyon Photos and had tucked it away in an easy to find, safe location I would be sure to easily locate the next morning. I searched everywhere. Patted down and reached into every pocket,(well almost), and came up empty handed. I made excuses, ran back inside, search the hotel, my rental car and was about to give up when I patted the right breast pocket of my "adventure birding shirt), and low and behold it was in the last place I expected to find it. I had my card, grabbed my equipment and we were off and birding.

We started on the empty, dusty roads near Tucson and Medera Canyon and Melody's amazing ears went to work. Melody, like Greg Miller, can bird by ear. She knows every call, chitter and whistle of the south Arizona bird population. With her help, we were able to add 16 new Year birds, amongst the numerous birds we encountered that morning, and it wasn't even 10am. Highlights included Curve-billed Thrasher, Phainopepla, Cactus and Bewick's Wren, and one of my nemesis birds from Florida, the Ash-throated Flycatcher. Also got good looks at Gray Hawks and Chihuahuan Ravens,(I pronounce it: "Chi-hua-huan"). I also got several good looks at Vesper Sparrows. I had briefly seen and identified on early in the year and was pleased to see them up close to confirm my earlier sighting on my own.

After a snack and coffee break at a gas station right out of the Old West, we paid a visit to The Patten House. These folks open up their yard to any and all Birders willing to make the pilgrimage for the great selection of Hummingbirds, Woodpeckers, and other delicious desert birds. I had thought I had seen a lot of feeders at the home in Florida where I found the White-winged Dove. And I was sure no one could have more feeders than the folks at Ash Canyon B&B, but nothing prepared me for the sheer number of feeders at the Patton House. The hummingbird feeders were numbered, 1 through 7, like pumps at a gas station. The owner would call out, "Black-chinned at number one. Violet-crowned at number seven.". I added those two hummers, along with a White-throated Sparrow and the very elegant Gamble's Quail. But the birds were coming in faster than you could count. There were up to a dozen birders there at any given time and our heads were whipping around so much trying to see everything that I am surprised no one suffered a serious case of whiplash. This place should come with complimentary neck massages. And I finally got a good and close look, along with photos, of a male Vermillion Flycatcher, after not getting any good photos out at the Orlando Wetlands in March.

But we couldn't stay all day, there were birds to see and time was marching ever forward toward the early Arizona sunset. We set off for Patagonia for more birds and a picnic lunch, where in addition to the delicious sandwiches Melody had prepared, we were treated to a dessert of a Plumbeous Vireo and a Canyon Wren, which was appropriate as we lunched in a Canyon. With lunch done and a Zone-tailed Hawk and White-throated Swift in the bag we headed off to an afternoon of birding Patagonia Lake State Park, where Sandy Komito's 1998 Big Year began with a Nutting's Flycatcher. We would not be seeing the Nutting's, but we were hoping to find a rare, recently reported Black-capped Gnatcatcher.

We hiked the Bird Trail and saw and heard and chased birds into trees and bushes and up and down hills, into Abd out of the woods. Stumbled over cow poop, and indeed, thanks to Melody's golden ear, heard and the found the Black-capped Gnatcatcher. But one of my favorites was the Cinnamon Teal. Last week in Florida I was barred from looking at the lovely duck, as it lived In an exclusive gated community. Well who needs one snobby duck when the pond at Patagonia was chock full of regular everyday, working-man Cinnamon Teals. I even found a Verdin on my own after missing seeing earlier when Melody first heard it in the woods. We ended out Bird Trail with 13 new species for my year including the bird with the best and longest name of the day, a Northern Beardless-Tyrannidae, though I really had my heart set on a bearded Tyrannidae, but there was no such bird listed in my Nat Geo Bird guide.

The amazing day was quickly coming to an end, but on the drive back to Tucson and my hotel, we made three stops and picked up a Long-billed Curlew, Rufous-winged Sparrow and our final bird of the day, a Barn Swallow on an electric wire.

And I managed to get photos of all but a handful of the birds we saw an amazing 98 birds and heard an additional 2 for a Big Day total of 100 species and I was able to add 42 new species to my Big Year, giving me a total of 294, with a few days left before I return to Canada and Spring Migration. With a couple of good days in Nevada and a bird or two in Michigan I could reach 300 by the end of the weekend. On January 1 I really believed 300 species in one year would be a good total for a novice Birder. But I will have 300 with nearly 9 months left and I intend to go full tilt to the end now. What started as a bit of a lark has turned into a bit of an obsession and I intend to make the most of the remaining trips this year, including a return to the Southwest and Newfoundland in July.

I can't thank Melody enough for the good birding, the good company, her sense of fun and adventure as we trekked into dusty scrub and biting bushes, and one of my favorite days of birding so far. It was like the Dry Tortugas and the Snake Bight Trail, but without the vomiting and mosquito bites.

I shall post some of the better photos from The Big Day, tomorrow. For now, here are a few to get started:

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