I sat in my car in the Starbucks parking lot in Nogales, Arizona staring at my cell phone. It was a hot and windy afternoon. Moments earlier I had left Starbucks after filling up my water bottles, pushing the door shut with all of my weight behind it as the windy dry air blew against the glass door, rushing into the air-conditioned coffee shop. On my phone I had multiple open windows of maps, bird apps, emails, and eBird open on Safari. Somehow, earlier in the day I had found all of my nearby target birds, and finished my grad school work for the weekend. This meant I could go out into the desert far from the nearest cell tower, and even farther from any safe source of clean drinking water, and search for two birds found somewhat reliably in a canyon called California Gulch.
I wasn't a stranger to California Gulch. In fact, I'd been there the day before. Kind of...
While driving the Ruby road out towards California Gulch the previous afternoon, I lost cell service. I also deleted the email that had maps and directions in it, so I was for lack of a better phrase, flying blind. I drove out to the end of the road, and was at a spring or a mine of some sort. Until it got dark, I walked down a sketchy looking wash, bouldering my way over stagnant puddles in an otherwise dry wash. I didn't see or hear any sparrows, and the topographic maps didn't line up with the landscape I was surrounded by. Somewhere along the road in, I figured I must have made a wrong turn. I birded hard until dusk, hopeful that I could find one of my target species, but that hope faded and I gathered my pride and drove the long windy road back to Nogales to rest and regroup. The local Wal-Mart parking lot provided a safe haven to sleep, and I didn't want to even think about trying for those birds again. I kind of despised California Gulch. Why did it have to be so difficult?
Leaving Starbucks, I convinced myself I needed a pre-trip pick-me-up. I hadn't eaten any real meals so far, so I stopped at DQ and bought a blizzard. I'm pretty sure the cute girl who took my order dumped extra truffles in it, because after I ate all the ice cream I had half a cup of crushed chocolate truffles. She smiled a lot, and was very pleased when I asked her for an opinion of where I could get a good burrito. Following her advice, I walked next door to a hot dog place and bought a killer burrito. My blizzard filled me up, so the burrito I saved until dinner. Let's fast forward 5 hours to when I ate the burrito. In that time, I tirelessly walked up and down California Gulch (which I located with better directions, screen-shots of maps, and a confident willingness to do whatever it takes to get both birds I was after) and had no sign of the Five-striped Sparrow. I did find a couple of mines which looked cool to explore.
Soon it was dark, and I realized that I missed the bird. I switched gears and drove to the spot where Buff-collared Nightjars had been heard, out in the middle of the desert near the border with Mexico. I pulled over my car as the sky grew darker, and the heat of the day was replaced by a blanket of cooler air, and a ceiling of glittering stars. I prepped my camera settings, grabbed my headlamp from the car, and took my burrito with me and walked down the road a ways, towards the area on the map where I expected to hear the bird. I ate the burrito, devouring the still-warm flour tortilla full of meat and fresh vegetables. (The dashboard of a car almost works like an oven, if parked facing the sun) Mentally exhausted and with a full stomach, I laid down in the middle of the dirt road and gazed skywards, temporarily obsessing over the differences in constellations in the night sky from this southern perspective. I may have fallen asleep for a few minutes, but I awoke to a otherworldly whistling- the Buff-collared Nightjar! I'm pretty sure I did a fist pump in the air as I got up and grabbed my camera and tripod and headed off into the direction the call came from. Minutes later, using my headlamp- I found the bird perched on a stick 10 feet off the ground.
I briefly shined a spotlight in the general direction, lighting the bird for a few shots, and then quickly left so it could go about its business.
The thought occurred to me to spend the night out in the desert. Fears of illegals hijacking my car or holding me hostage crossed my mind, but I had too much to gain from staying in California Gulch overnight, instead of driving the windy mountain road back to Nogales while I was tired. Also, leaving would admit defeat. I wasn't going to miss the Five-striped Sparrow. If I did, that would mean I'd have to return to California Gulch, and I was already sort of embarrassed I couldn't find it the day before and had to try twice. A third time simply wasn't acceptable. So, I prepared to sleep out in the middle of the silent hills, under the bats and stormy-sea colored sky, which parted briefly to reveal a sky full of stars.
The next morning, before the sun even came up above the horizon, I was looking at a singing Five-striped Sparrow. I heard a second bird, but wasn't going to stick around any longer than I needed to- I had more birds to see to reach 600, and I had a friend to pick up that night in Tuscon Arizona. We were going to Grand Canyon NP next, to hike and attempt to spot the California Condor.
The adventure continues...