Thursday, August 14, 2014

Carolina Birding: Fun in the Sun and Green Glorious Mountains

Greeting Birders, Non-birders, and B.I.nocular-curious Bros who are sneakily reading here but if caught by your roommate Bradley would claim it's only because you were googling 'Boobies" and 'Breeding Great Tits' and not because you're a closet bird nerd. 
I have done woefully little birding in the last few weeks, what with school getting back in session and Butler's Birds taking the backseat to having a job and other considerations (bird blogging is predominantly a financial burden). But migrants will be coming south soon and we're lurching to another exciting time of year. Without more Arizona material though, it's back east we go.

After the Great Texas Birding Adventure it would have been such a fizzle-out, such a quiet goodnight, to merely head back to Phoenix and enter a state of torpor for the rest of the summer. The Texas trip was tremendously birdy and successful by my less-than-expert standards, but it was also pretty exhausting, perhaps by anyone's standards. Sometimes one has to vacation from a vacation, and in that pursuit I went to spend time in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Of course, one doesn't go to Carolina and visit neither the coast nor the mountains. In fact, I was fortunate to see both. 
The gorgeous ranges to the west promised plenty of resident lifers, beautiful birds I could see, or not, on leisurely hikes through alpine meadows and semi-rainforest, quite the contrast to the time-budget, smash-and-grab (careful around Endangered Species) birding in Texas. 

: :: ack. swoon :: :

But first, a little demonstration of uncommonly seen bird behavior: sunning. North Carolina is fraught with Eastern Wood-Pewees. These are way better than Western Wood-Pewees because they vocalize loudly and humorously, while also being generally more accommodating. 
One such EAWP was getting the ol' preening gland fired up for some vitamin D-fueled, anti-parasitic hygiene. Or, according to some, this bird was playing dead as part of an elaborate reuse to lure in morbidly curious prey like House Finches, a demonstration of predatory thanatosis otherwise known to occur predominantly in species of ciclid fish...

(No finches, or even flies, came to investigate the carcass)

Can you imagine if we regulated our hygiene this way, sticking our faces into an oily gland (it'd have to be the armpit) and then a rubbin' it all over our bodies? Actually...I take it back. That sounds nice.

"Yeah! Fresh!! Deodorant is for chumps!"

One of the first spots I visited for recreational hiking was Clingman's Dome, named of course after Sir Reginald B. Clingman, who was well noted for the size of his kopf. The Dome features a 1/2 mile walk up a busy paved path that takes one to a lookout near the Carolina/Tennessee border, a pulchritudinous and panoramic view to be sure. Even better, the Dome trail intersects with a 1 mile stretch of the Great Appalachian Trail, the really big one some people take from Georgia or wherever up to Maine. Following this wilder trail I could hobble my ol' bones into the thick forest that carpets the Great Smokies. I felt like the Last of the Mohicans--except less agile and with a camera--exploring the dense woods. Of course where there's vegetation and water, and even some cooler temps, there are birds.
And darn it all, if I must come out of vacation to do scrutinize them, then so be it. The Eastern Towhee mirrors its western cousin well with its ever present pillaging and calling from the understory, a credit to whatever the hell a towhee actually is (it's a pneumonic name, for their calls?).


It's not often I get to sample flavors of non Oregon-race Dark-eyed Junco. In fact, Baskin Robbins doesn't even carry it anymore. Slate-colored is probably the most common, or at least the most widespread in North America, but it's still a change for a Phoenician. Turns out immature DEJUs look like an emo subspecies of Pine Siskin. Maybe we all are a little Emo Siskin in our immature, angsty days. Shoot, if the corners of my mouth were yellow and droopy too I'd be a party defecator (actually this guy was pretty chipper).


Where the trail was thick and overgrown the sounds seemed as muffled as the light, and this added to a very primordial feel in these old mountains. But where there were openings the light and sound reverberated (ok, light doesn't reverberate, leave me alone). The excitement of hearing a new bird call is  a recognized and yet still under-appreciated buzz. Several new calls still belonged to birds I had seen before, though not recently, but some were new entirely. One such squeaky serenade belonged to the Chestnut-sided Warbler, a much wanted and long waited Warbler species predominantly of the east. This bird's cheery song was a new one, but one with which I quickly became familiar.



The first couple of birds I picked out were distant and backlit with the overcast weather, but this warbler, even being somewhat mildly colored compared to its cousins, is still done justice with the saturated colors. Pretty but professional...this is a Warbler you can take home to your parents!



I'm trying to talk about this all cool, like it was no big thing, but truth be told I was fairly beside myself. Wood Warblers are not a group we see much of in Arizona. These colors and these songs are a rare thing indeed in the southwest. The vagrants we pick up are usually young or in bad shape, so I had long been yearning for some real, East Coast Warbler exposure. The more I stared, the more I ogled and frothed at the mouth, the more I muttered expletives and incomprehensibles, the more the intricacies  of this bird affected me. Close up Warbler require medication soon afterwards.    


It was cathartic. I was finally in the beautiful green country, the overgrown, rolling mountains with Warblers buzzing around, and I was comfortable. There was no sweat nor were there thorns, just soft and lovely nature stuff in which I had all day to wallow. I didn't realize, until that moment, how much I had really been yearning for the experience. I don't precisely recall, but I'm pretty the entirety of my being melted into a large, pulpy puddle. Fortunately, I was on a decline and the puddle must have seeped downhill. I regained consciousness near the car, and quickly made plans to get back up into the mountains the next day. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Bro, Do You Even Pish???

Even though they all have one terrifying thing in common, bird nerds are a pretty diverse bunch. There are the retiree birders, the hardcore listers, the young upstarts, the field biologists, the feeder watchers, and various other tendrils of the kraken. And like the birds themselves, there are many possible hybrids between these different species of nerd. Bird populations fluctuate. Ranges expand and contract. Some species thrive while others fade away, often replaced by adaptive, aggressive, or more versatile species. The same could be said of many breeds of birder. 
A recent, widely, and rightly mocked article on Esquire bemoaned the changing social scene of the birding community. With great trepidation it pointed to the increasing popularity of birding--even as a mild past time--not only in the mainstream, but in more stereotypical groups such as the "emo type" and the "frat-boy" birder. The author wanted to keep birding a small, esoteric hobby for himself, like a high schooler who just discovered a new Indie band and who doesn't want anyone else to know about it. The author is a jealous birder, even protective, but not a conservationist. Alas that none of the his revelatory, insecure premonitions seem to be transpiring. The number of "emo type" birders in North America is the same as the number of Piping Plovers breeding in Florida.
Nevertheless, the times they are a changin', and not necessarily for the better. Habitat loss and roving gangs of windmills are wreaking havoc on North American bird populations, many of which are in sharp decline. Esquire not withstanding, most people agree that awareness of birds and the need to protect their habitat needs to be expanded. 


There are initiatives underway to increase urban birding, and with that, diversify birder demographics. Qualifying species as 'endangered' can help with protection, but the political backlash here sometimes causes more harm than good. Whatever the other helpful solutions may be, birding also needs to become more popular with the mainstream. The endeavor itself and what it stands for (conservation) needs to become a commonly understood value, something vaunted and publicized in ways that might make the more timorous bird nerds flush for cover. 
To whom do do we turn? Who can bring birding into the mainstream? Who can infuse it with energy and money? Who can make it infectious even for those who'd prefer to mock it ironically from the sidelines? Without further adieu, I present to you a very special species. I present to you, the redeemer of North American birding.

The ill-fitting tank top, the crew socks with loafers, the sideways cap, the dangling lanyard, the vacant, empty-heaed expression...yes, yes you know who I'm talking about, and I realize what a radical proposition this is but I shall endeavor to justify. The salvation of birding, or rather of birds, lies with the Bros. End the brohibition!
They have the social capital. They have the energy. They have money. They tend to have wealthy parents. They get really, really excited (stoked) about stuff that they think is cool, and then they devote considerable time to it. 
Beer with me here; think about this for a minute. If we as bird nerds could get Bros to devote the same amount of time towards birding, and the conservation of bird habitat, as they devote to the muscle factory, bird-dogging chicks, and fussing with their facade, we would be knee-deep in Whimbrels (the very best depth of Whimbrels). This thing, it aint' pretty, but it's loud and really friggin' zestful. Get enough of them together and you've got a social force, one that is tech and media savvy. Let's put this creature to work for the birds:


Now grant me a little time here for specific exposition and specification. For you see, there are a couple different breeds of Bro, and we need to identify their positive, useful attributes first and then examine ways in which we can bring them into the fold, even if this will make the fold stink like Axe body spray and lavoris. I am willing to step in here, despite the perdition into which it may drag my soul, and aid in some Bro identification. After all, I attended an all-boys high school that literally had 'Bro' in its name, and can consider myself an experienced expert in Bro field studies. 
Real quick, here's an Elf Owl, before the lack of birds drives you away.


First, we'll start with the genera. There are two genera of Bro in the western world, with distribution concentrated primarily on the coasts including the Gulf, and also Syracuse, New York. We'll examine the first genus is more specific detail because it can be harder to identify, with its more subtle plumage and sociable behavior. Identify we must if we are to tag and drag such a specimen into the world of birding. We must understand it and approach it with caution, for it is insecure and easily startled. 
There are various species within this genera, distinguishable by voice and subtleties in plumage as well as range (east coats vs. west coast) and choice in footwear. This is the pampered Bro, genus Broticus Casanovicus, which includes the more localized East Coast species Prepicus Topsiderii, and we need all of them. Yes, I know it's more disgusting than a juvenile Mockingbird, but look nonetheless! 


See that douchebag? We need him. We need him because he has money and his dad has money and his Uncle Jim in Cape Cod has money. He has a yacht, and at night he parks his yacht inside the floating garage of his dad's yacht. This birder has capital, and this birder has clout. Not only that, but unlike some lawmakers or radical political friends, this target demographic is gettable. Why? Because even though this studmuffin has two collared shirts, both collars popped obviously and a puka shell necklace, he is incredibly insecure. I know he talks and swaggers big, but trust me. I have lived near this species of Bro before. I have studied it in the wild. This is its morning routine: 

"Alright you scrawny bastard. Everyone is watching. Everyone cares a lot, a real lot, about what you do and how you do it and how good you look while doing it. Don't mess this up and hate yourself forever. Are you ready??"

With the right approach, with some wheedling and cajoling and coddling and well-veiled ironic compliments, we can turn the morning routine of the Cash-Loafer Bro into:

"Hey there you magnificent bastard! Are you going to go find a MEGA today and then tweet it to your 700,000 followers!? You bet you are! And then you're going to put away more Jack Daniels and Coke than a graveyard shift liquor store shelf stocker!"

While most species of the Broticus Casanovicus genus are more localized, they have a considerable social weight across the continent relative to other groups. Their clout and capital influences advertisers. It makes politicians take notice. Species in this genera may seem insecure, but they tend to work at financial firms, at investment brokerages and software development companies while also taking classes in business management. Of course, not all Bros are bursting at the seams with Benjamins, but compared to other associations Bros tend to flash their cash and find outlets for their enthusiasm more so than many others. If we could harness their burgeoning financial power as well as their raw enthusiasm directed towards hair configuration, we could probably create infinitely renewable energy. At the very least, we would gain a privileged and powerful ally in the conservation of birds and their habitat. But how do we get its attention? First, let's look at field identification This photo was taken when the wild Bro species thought that Calvin Klein might have been looking.

                 

Although there is some considerable variation by species, there are some commonalities across the genus that we will discuss here. The sunglasses are often resting atop the crown but seldom warn. There is always at least one and sometimes upwards of six adornments on the wrists, neck, and/or ankles, which often involve the shells of small mollusks, hemp, or hardened leather. This is a species of Double-Collar Popped Bro, and while no other species of Bro shows two popped collars, one is typical of many species in this genus. 
Expression is also key when identifying Bros. If no one else is paying attention to the Bro, it will often assume stank-face pose, undergo a brief, 7-second existential crisis (the longest recorded attention span of a Bro) and go change its shirt, or simply remove its shirt. Luckily that was not the case with this specimen, which was tamer than some. 

                 

How can birding appeal to Bros? Well, starting off with a treatise on the ecological value of American Dippers is not the best angle. In fact, you'll probably get called a crass name like 'queer-mo'. 

A cool bird, but not of intrinsic value to a Bro, not like 14 Bald Eagles all in a pile. American birding cannot move forward without piles of Eagles!

Take the competitive angle. In your workplace or at family get-togethers, around your apartment complex and at your local pub, don't try to avoid the Chest-bumping Sidehat or the Oakleys-at-Night Owl. Most Bros are collegiate, and you'll find them concentrated on college campuses. Just think of how many are at U of A, a stone's throw away from Madera Canyon--and many have to take an environmental science class anyway! Words like 'face-melting' and 'crush' go a long way to setting the tone, but once you get a couple of Bros checking out the eBird Top 100 lists for their state or county, their high-adrenaline machismo drive, which is closely linked in the brain to the desire to feel popular and respected, will take over. This is not hypothetical. I have personal experience in getting Bro acquaintances involved with various hobbies they first thought were lame. Pretty soon they were so obsessed and one-track about the whole thing, sending constant phone calls and invitations and buying all kinds of products, that I was overwhelmed and driven away.
On a related note, it's true that greater Bro involvement in birding might seem unsavory to some birders, especially birders who are big fans of Esquire and quiet walks in the park. Increases in Bro birding would also bring some other repugnant behaviors as well, and it's fair to assume that the number of Natural Light cans along Antelope Island  or Lake Merritt would increase. Even so, it's a cost/benefit analysis that favors the Dudes. Though it seems like sacrilege to see a Bro with a Sibley's sticking out of his trousers, do not shun the blasphemer...continue the conversion.


I realize how iconoclastic this perspective is, how seemingly antithetical the involvement of Bros is to the values we draw from spending time in nature and with birds. Whether the Bro is a more refined East Coast specimen or the lower-middle class apartment type picture below, what force can they really bring? Remember, in the case of publicizing birding, any press is good press, and some of their worst character flaws can be great attributes. Combine the capital of Brotics Casanovicus with the raw energy and drive of the more common Broticus Slovenicus, the sort of fellow who will unabashedly lifer-dance in an apartment complex, and even in smaller numbers you have a dynamic force.

                           

Don't believe me? How many Bros did it take to destroy the Aztec Empire, an excursion widely believed to have taken place simply because they made a wrong turn on a cerveza run?? So when Pledge to Fledge and other birder involvement initiatives come around, I challenge you to really make a sacrifice for the birds. Don't try to lure your grandmother or your little brother or the co-worker or friend whom you kind of want to flirt with but are nervous about directly addressing in a 1-on-1. These people will already be sympathetic to your causes. 
Try to get a Bro out birding. Tell him he might find a new species and get to name it. Tell him he could be number 1. Tell him there are lots and lots of available chicks in the birding scene. Prevaricate like no other; he won't even remember what you said. Whatever it takes to get 'em outside, a couple of flashy birds and a competitive edge will take care of the rest and give many the national park a much needed bolstering.
Next spring break? Yosemite baby!  

*No Bros were harmed in the making of this post, although someone other people might have been.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Texas Birding: The Final Chapter and No Room for Tears

Even though the solid birding continued through the Bolivar Flats and in Galveston Bay, the smell of the sea and the thrill of new birds could not dissuade a rising feeling in my gut. No, this was not the same familiar gut feeling that came after eating at too many roadside diners. This was a pain of sadness, of melancholy, for I knew my time in Texas was drawing to a close. I knew there were still birds to see, but also plenty for which I had passed the opportunity to see. Luck had not provided Brown Jays nor Mexican Crows nor Becards, and I failed to turn up Red-billed Pigeon through my own endeavors. That wasn't even the worst of it. Purple Gallinule and Fulvous-whistling Duck both continued to elude me, as did Ringed Kingfisher. While I was eagerly anticipating a return to civilization, booze refills, and showers in Austin, I mourned the continued absence of these birds from my life, a life that already lacks big piles of cash, big piles of babes, and big piles of jet skiis. Surely I could get at least one more bird?
There was one last glimmer of hope between Galveston and Austin, one faint possibility of grabbing a figurative toothpick (the worst kind, by the way) and snatching just a little bit more victory from between the teeth of the jaws of defeat. 
Brazos Bend SP had a solid eBird list, it was reasonably en route, and it had one of my truant target species listed there. The first bird I saw was not such a target bird, but an FOY Mississippi Kite is a pretty sweet flyover, even if it's a silhouette. These birds are singularly attractive, and I need to pay them a visit at their tiny breeding spot in St. David, AZ again.


Brazos Bend is pretty well known in the Texas birding circles, especially for an inland site, but to an outsider it had no notoriety relative to the famous coastal or river valley sites. The layout is more or less similar to other state parks one would expect in such areas, several vegetated lakes with grassy walkways bordered by thick deciduous woods. It goes without saying, this being a Texas park, that there were also Purple Martin colonies supported on the premises.



There is always an easiest way to do a thing, and then a panoply of comparatively easy ways to do that same thing. Seldom do I land anywhere on that spectrum.
I hit Brazos Bend at about 1:00 in the pm and about 100° on the thermometer. This was impeccably poor timing even with a MIKI near the parking lot. Luckily the lugubrious pond reptiles didn't utilize watches, and thus didn't know any better. Red-eared Sliders were quite common at the water features, and sported varying amounts of home-grown salad on their trailers.


The Brazos Bend target bird would be in the same sort of muck as the hestian reptiles, so I spent the first hour or so circulating the lakes and putting some final touches on my two-week sunburn--I was determined my neck would peel like an onion, or die trying. A species of softshell turtle, maybe a Spiny, was surprisingly removed from its element, perhaps in a solar-charged attempt to rid itself of a discomforting collection of leeches.


The organization and maintenance around the Brazos lakes really was on point. Large willow and oak trees dripping with spanish moss lined the grassy expanses and many waders populated the densely-padded banks. Contemplative Anhingas surveyed overhead, pondering just exactly what the hell kind of bird they really want to be. 


There were no rare or unexpected waders, but Brazos boasted very respectable diversity, including the birds shown below and also two Ibis species and some other deemed unworthy of the camera.


I would also be remiss not in mentioning that the deeper, more open sloughs had some oversized aquatic lizards whose parents never taught them not to stare. The fellow shown below was maybe 5 feet long in total, which means he still has a few more years to go until sexual maturity. Five feet tall and sexually immature...we all remember that awkward age. 


The grassy, picnic type areas were productive as well, though they held little promise of new birds. Yellow-throated and White-eyed Vireos both sang from the thicker trees surrounding the openings, while Cardinals, Blue Jays, and Common Crows gave their same old shtick where they had the space. I know that any references to Poe on a bird blog should be accompanied by a photo of a Raven, but look at this Crow. It actually looks that eloquent, morose ol' necrophiliac. Maybe there's something to reincarnation after all. Maybe I anthropoemorphize too much.


The wooded areas also provided some clear looks at Tufted Titmouse, a bird I saw surprisingly little of in Texas, and one which to my shame I had never photographed before. It's always them young ones that can't stay away from the camera. Profile duck-face! This TUTI would later upload this shot to its FB page for sure totes, accompanied by many like pokes.



More worthwhile and not far away was an ebullient Northern Parula. My prior sightings of this bird were mangy vagrants in Arizona, always in non-bedding plumage. Finally I had my face properly melted, that is, melted all the way through, not just melted around the edges and left with a cold center like a friggin' Hot Pocket.


These birds might well be accredited as one of the top ten most gorgeous passerines in North America if they weren't also among the most common, widespread, and conspicuous eastern warbler species. It requires some skill not to oversaturate and expose this bird when it's in direct sun. I do not possess this skill. The southern Parula populations start their breeding in March. Time and food permitting, they sometimes have a go at a second brood before the season is over. The image of virility. 


After completing a few of the various lake circuits I was pretty pleased with Brazos Bend, and able to say it exceeded my expectations (which, of course, were lower than they should have been). But apart from opening yet another county account I had added nothing of real note to my trip list. 
On any given trek when the target birds aren't showing the seed of doubt starts to grow. It can grow and grow, spreading throughout one's body, sapping the limbs of their strength and the mind of its will. It's at this pivotal time when the hardcore and/or vacationing birder has to murder that seed, kill it with some sort of toxic spray, like say, bourbon or something, and then press on. 
Luckily the Bulleit rye had one swig left in it, and luckily the PUGA was frolicking in the pickerel weed, around the last and largest of the lakes, a weed in which it is very good to frolic. I have dipped on this bird before as a vagrant in AZ. I managed not to see it ever before in Texas, nor when birding in Florida. Finally, I got to put this gorgeous swamp chicken to bed, and then make cuddle spoons too.
#loveyouhateyougallinule


This particular specimen was a wonderful ambassador. The years of frustration could finally be released, leaking out of my face as I wept openly, softly at first and then with tremendous violence. The bird came very close, no doubt attracted to the cloud of dragonflies eating the cloud of non-dragonflies around my head. Crush you very much PUGA.


Red-billed Pigeon was a lost opportunity and Fulvous Ducks just weren't in the cards. Nevertheless, with a pretty full sense of satisfaction, I completed the trip to Austin where I spent that evening and the next recuperating at the domicile of one of Texas's crustiest and simultaneously gracious birding machines. 
Ah...to be under a roof and with plumbing again, to eat non-chain burgers, to sleep with straightened legs and parallel to the ground...these are commodities that soft, squishy, modern humans should not avoid for long, which domestic Purple Martins appreciate very well.

"Verily, my favorite burger comes with a generous topping of flies"

"Only barbarians and Cave Swallows sleep so impiously such as not to have a roof overhead"

The Austin revival was sorely needed, though I hit a run of bad luck bird-wise in the area. I was able to get quick, distant looks at a Ringed Kingfisher staked out by Nate at Roy G. Guerrero Park, but failed to turn up Barn and Eastern Screech Owls at either of their predictable spots. For my final morning of birding in Texas, I could turn up no more than an Indigo Bunting and some young didn't-know-any-betters in the form of a Ladder-backed Woodpecker and Eastern Phoebe.


Oh cruelty of cruelties, I still had to spend the night at the friggin' airport in SAT the next day after a series of mechanical problems and my continual parsimoniousness. Even going quietly into that last goodnight, the Texas birding was nothing short of phenomenal. I had never been birding out so long in any given day, seen so many birds in general nor recorded so many lifers as I did during my time in Texas. It was a wonderful trip, well worth the tormenting two year wait, and I want to thank everyone who helped along the way, especially Mike Motto at the Iowa Voice, Nate McGowan at This Machine Watches Birds, and the nice lady at Budget who knocked an extra $40 off my rental car because I was a "nice seeming young man." 
You all are almost as awesome as the birds. There will be more coming from farther east soon.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Chiri Chiri Chickadee: To Suffer the Bird

The Chiricahua Mountains, famous throughout North America for their unique rock formations as well as their excellent birding and excellent herping, are nonetheless one of the less visited and studied ecosystems (as well as mountain ranges) in Arizona. Despite the ever-present possibility of fabulous Mexican vagrants (talking about birds here) and highly endangered rattlesnakes, the remoteness of these mountains, a good four and a half hours from Phoenix often relegates them to mere talking points in discussions about AZ birding destinations. The closer, better-covered Santa Rita, Catalina, or Huachuca Mountains are now preferred. But even with Short-tailed Hawks seen on Mt. Lemmon this year, there is still one bird the Chiris hold that the rest of AZ's many mountains cannot claim. It was for this bird that I decided to use up the last of my summer vacation, for this bird that I passed up better birding opportunities in the White Mountains with some of AZ's finest. The Mexican Chickadees loomed, and finding this species would finally close the Chiricahua chapter of my AZ birding. So many birders before have been forced to come and pay homage to the lithified temples here, the steep canyon walls and ascending pine forests. I wanted to pay my dues and have this corner of the state map no longer taunting me with its incompleteness. 
What follows is a tail of considerable woe and verbose redundancies. It may be harsh; it may be negative; it will have good birds; it will certainly be iconoclastic. It will be about birding in the Chiricahua Mountains, one of the cradles of the big North American birding movement in the 1960s and 1970s, now the grumpy older relative we all must visit at least once, or forfeit an inheritance.


The Chiricahua Mountain range has extensive trails running throughout its expanse, moving between 5,000 and 8,000 feet elevation and exposing one to a variety of habitats. The well known Cave Creek and South Fork birding trails host many of the southeastern Arizona birds, such as Trogons, Sulphur-bellied and Buff-breasted Flycatchers, and myriad Hummingbirds, and also pull vagrants such as Slate-throated Redstart. And of course, there are the Chickadees. The Southwestern Research Station, located on Cave Creek, has multiple on-going field studies, many concerning herpetology in the area (which, even to my uninformed eye, was overwhelmingly excellent) and offers some nice birding on its grounds, where it also accommodates guests as well as researchers. 

I was joined by a good friend for two days of camping, two days to find the Chickadee and enjoy the unique volcanic Chiricahuan formations. The camping started out well, with a spot on the John Hands campground next to a waterfall, which proved to be a saving grace after several long and sweaty hikes. Our first morning started on South Fork, where FOY Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers and other lovers of the sycamores made for a busy morning. As we gained some miles and some altitude though, the birding died down, the temperatures grew higher, and the ol' post-op knee, not much the fan of hiking any more, started to ache and swell considerably. We covered about three miles, and knowing each step we took farther up trail would also a be step we'd have to trek back down, I chickened out. No amount of boiled eggs and Nature Valley bars could argue for further progress. We did not gain enough elevation for the Chickadees, but did have some lovely birds along the way, including a Western Tanager that allowed me finally, justly, to document the species. 
          

Truth be told though South Fork disappointed, not because the birding was bad itself, but because the place has such a strong, international reputation relative to how mediocre the birding was by general SE AZ standards.
All in all the incidental reptiles we encountered were of more surprise and intrigue. There was a herpetology class/field day of some sort going on, and after encountering one Rock Rattlesnake on the trail we were able to help some of the herpetologists onto a a very young one. We then found another second year snake farther down the trail, totaling three different rattlesnakes in an hour, and I would also be remiss not to mention that seeing so many snakes right next to the trail, obscured in tall grass, was a bit unnerving.


Various Collared Lizards, Spiny Lizards (mostly Yarrow's), Whip-tails, and Alligator Lizards also made for a cooly cold-blooded hike, and did well to compensate for, if not replace, the overall lack of birds. By time we were back to the car we had maybe two dozen bird species.



So aspects of the first major hike, which consumed the majority of the day, were disappointing, but it was not all a bust. Any place where Blue-throated hummingbirds are one of the more numerous and dominant species cannot be decried too much, even if their shade-perching preferences render one unready to photograph them when they finally come out into the light.


The Blue-throats could be very accommodating, though they don't have quite the flair and sparkle of a Magnificent or Broad-billed Hummingbird.


After falling short on South Fork, we decided to get efficient and drive up to the Chickadee-preferred mixed conifers, typically occurring above 6,500 feet in the area. Rustler and Barfoot Park, though damaged by recent fires, fit the bill, and have the most numerous Chickadee reports in the last few years. Unfortunately, they're a 10-11 mile drive up a steep and poorly graded dirt road, and our vehicle wasn't exactly off-road ready. It was slow and painful getting up, but the Chickadees would be worth it! Except that...scour as we might, we could not find the birds. In fact, somewhat understandably at 3:30 pm, the whole area was pretty dead. Dark-eyed and Yellow-eyed Juncos, as well as Stellar's Jays, were our main company.



An FOY Band-tailed Pigeon helped validate the excursion, but by time we were back to camp I was feeling a bit hard-done. Going back to the Research Station, I was further bothered to check eBird and see that some people had recently reported 6+ MECHs at the station (not nearly high enough, no suitable habitat), which I'm going to have to go ahead and call bullshit on right now.
Admittedly, this was much more peeving than it would have been had I not fruitlessly spent the day chasing these little buggars with a bum knee, but really, 8 Chickadee at the station is pretty lazy and/or misplaced, all the worse when I was trying to find the best realistic spot for them, so, grumble grumble grumble!

We did not want to try the Rustler Park drive again the next day, nor even the comparatively lighter 7 miles (one way) drive to Turkey Creek, where the birds also dwell, given how rough it had been on the car. With our last day we had one risky option: hiking the 4.6 mile Silver Peak trail on the farther east side of the Chiris. If we followed the trail to its end, we'd be high enough (from 4,945 feet to 8,008), and presumably encounter the right habitat, for the birds, but there were no eBird reports nor hearsay from the Research Station to back this up. In fact, there are no eBird reports for this trail at all. Nevertheless, we set out early morning for the 9+ mile hike. It started in this kinda stuff:



Hedging our bets on finding the Chickadees on this lengthy trek was a calculated risk, considering we didn't have a lot of options. But my failing to accurately surmise that the first 3 miles of the hike would be in steep desert canyons, in full sun, and bringing only two water bottles, was an outright mistake. The surrounding scenery was pleasant but the hike was brutal. 



After going for a couple of hours and having little idea of our progress, we forlornly scanned the pine-strewn valleys far away, thinking that they, surely, could hold some of our target birds, but seeing no way in which our trail would take us that far. So, to reiterate, I went into this hike with insufficient information and preparation. And, very unpoetically, we persevered from a combination of ignorance and stubbornness!
The Silver Peak trail map only showed one set of switch backs, near the end of the trail, so every time we encountered one of the 5 preceding groups, we assumed we were nearing the summit, and decided to proceed. We weren't expecting to get the birds here but wanted at least to accomplish something, and thus by continually underestimating how far we'd actually gone and by continually assuming the peak was closer than it really was, we blundered on until the pines started getting closer and closer...


..and closer and closer, until finally the trails crossed through some of the comparatively verdant valleys. We crossed through 3 such pine valleys, for lack of a better/proper term, and though they were not exceptionally birdy we regained some hope. The rocky hillsides provided a couple of Montezuma Quail, and a Short-tailed Hawk even called and then flushed up the mountain, pursued by some angry Jays (and this was, in a sense, a rarer sighting than the Chickadees). 


We were pretty exhausted and almost out of water when we hit the fourth and largest of the pine washes, but here at approximately 7,200 feet, we had three of our Mexican Chiquitas, our esoteric little parids at long last. It had been an ordeal, and we still had to continue to the summit, for pride's sake, before trekking the 4.6 miles back down without water. Finally, finally, finally, we had the birds.
And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.


Now here I will publicize an opinion that is sure to fly worse than a led balloon, or even a soggy Coot. One of the biggest senses of relief and satisfaction I got from the MECHs was not studying this cute little bird in itself, but in knowing I'd likely never have to go back to the Chiris again. I know, that's a pessimistic angle to take after a successful trip.
The mountain range is pretty, there is tremendous ecological value there, but good grief...we put in a lot, A LOT, of work for considerably little pay out. This is not meant as an invective against the Chiricahuas or the people that choose to bird there, but more so a comparative thanksgiving to have mountain ranges that offer almost the same birds (in fact, more of them), much closer and more accessibly. That being said, I'm still looking forward to doing this sort of thing all over again for Colima Warbler in west Texas. Birders can be gluttons for punishment just as well as for plumage.