I stood in the Anchorage airport next to a taxidermy moose, holding a handful of cash in disbelief. My heart was full of gratitude for the generosity of a new friend who had just given a generous contribution to The Birding Project. It was handed to me with kind words and a smile, yet I assumed the unspoken implication to go chase a bird that I hadn't imagined I'd get to see this year. With some careful planning, and internet deals, I could travel almost anywhere in the ABA area to chase any bird I wanted. With some serious decisions to make, I slept on it- on the hard tile floor of the Anchorage airport (which has no carpeted floorspace anywhere I could find) In the morning, I decided to rent a car for 24 hours, and pick up some of the more common boreal birds I hadn't seen yet this year, and drove deep into the interior of Alaska in search of nesting Northern Hawk Owls. That adventure will have to be wait to be told properly...
24 hours later I was flying south over the Seward Peninsula on Alaska Airlines, bound for warmer climes. Little did I know that the heat wave I was about to encounter would be the hottest temps in Arizona yet this year- breaking 112 degrees. It was a good thing I would be doing most of my birding in the mountains, where it was slightly cooler.
I purposefully scheduled my flight to Arizona through Seattle, with the second leg the following morning so I could stop overnight in Seattle. I enjoyed a home-cooked meal and a real bed, courtesy of Chateau de Mom and Dad. Their unconditional love and support has enabled me to feel at peace chasing my dream of doing a Big Year. Family is the best.
I took a standby flight from Seattle to Tuscon, which was the most affordable option I could find. On the flight, instead of some much-needed rest I busily planned the next leg of my adventure- a driving trip from Seattle to Maine, which I knew was the best use of the next couple of weeks to pick up the remaining breeding birds I hadn't seen yet so far this year. I still needed Bicknell's Thrush, Atlantic Puffin, and a host of other breeding birds that I could pick up on my cross-country drive. I can't wait for that trip!
Little did I know that the Jeep Compass I picked up at the airport would be my best friend for the remainder of the trip. Without it, driving to the Pine Flycatcher at Aliso Springs would have been difficult, to say the least. My Subaru likely would have made it, but with the extra weight of my gear it could have been dicey. Along the road in I spotted a Montezuma Quail! I've seen this species already, but this bird could not have been more photogenic.
I drove straight from the airport to Aliso Springs campground, which was located at the end along a steep, rough road that earns an award for "most fun road traveled" for the year. It was on par with the official Jeep test-drive track I'd ridden on years ago, full of incline hills, logs, bridges, and berms. After driving tens of thousands of miles on cruise control, having to think through each section of rough road, analyzing a steep climb before engaging the 4WD and attempting to scale it without scraping the bottom of the rental car was thrilling. I made it to the campground easily without damaging the vehicle, or encountering other cars coming down the road.
At the campground was one other car, about to leave. As I pulled in, I met another birder named Larry, who graciously filled me in about the recent habits of the Pine Flycatcher. While we were talking, I noticed a small drab bird land about 10 feet away. The Pine Flycatcher! We had great looks, and were treated to the bird feeding, then watched as it gathered nesting material and flew up to a nearby tree and continue constructing a nest. This was one of the easiest birds I've seen all year... I couldn't be more pleased! I interviewed Larry and talked with a nice couple that showed up right as I was about to leave. We all left very happy.
After a couple of brief interviews with the birders who showed up right after me, I thought I might have a chance to get to the Aztec Thrush spot. The bird had been seen last night along the trail, so I figured I may have a shot if I could drive to Madera Canyon, and hike up to the Carrie Nation trail before sunset.
I hoofed it, stopping briefly to look at the hummingbird feeders at Santa Rita Lodge. Recently a Plain-capped Starthroat and Berylline Hummingbird were both reported here, but I could sit at feeders after I saw the Aztec Thrush. Little did I know that I'd spend every spare moment of the next couple days sitting at the stakeout spot... On the hike up, I spotted a commotion in the trees and a Northern Pygmy Owl emerged with a young Painted Redstart in his small feathered talons. Dinner has been served!
I spotted some Robins along the trail to the mine. They had finished bathing and were moving up the hill into a side canyon. Was the Aztec Thrush mixed in like it was last night? If so, I couldn't find it. I waited until dark, and listened to the night sounds start as the sun dropped behind the mountain, the sky slowly turning into my favorite color blue. Instead of hiking out, I decided to sleep up the hill in my hammock. I fell asleep to Mexican Whip-poor-wills calling, and hearing a variety of hoots from many species of owls I had already seen and/or heard this year. These voices of old friends seemed to be telling me that it was nice to have me visiting. I agreed.
The following morning brought over 30 birders up the trail, forming quite the crowd. I enjoyed visiting with a few folks, but the antics of a "stakeout" grew as 8:00am approached, then 9am. New people arrived, huffing and puffing from the long hike. Snacks were brought out, and the culprits of crinkling wrappers received scowls from the birders who were listening for the mute call note of the Aztec Thrush, who had not appeared. Tensions rose as more people came, and the dreaded turn around time came for more than one birder, who had to leave the birds and return to real life, looming outside the canyon. I was grateful I didn't have to leave. It was 9am, and the bird hadn't showed. I decided to hike up the trail and see if I could see anything. Maybe I'd flush the bird? Perhaps I could find the goshawk whose feather I saw earlier in the morning on the trail? Within 10 minutes, I flushed a Northern Goshawk, and returning to the stakeout spot I spotted... nobody.
The birders had disappeared, which meant only one thing. The Aztec Thrush had been spotted! I've chased many birds this year, and don't really get my hopes up about finding them until I see it. I was optimistic about seeing this bird, and remained so despite having just missed it. Running out of water and cell phone juice left me with no choice, I hiked out to re-supply in the afternoon. I re-strategized, and geared up to head back up the canyon. I birded the rest of the day, meeting a host of new characters, and running into two separate black bears right before setting up for the night. For the bears' protection (I'm not scared of Black Bears) I decided to sleep somewhere else rather then tempt them with a backpack full of food and toothpaste. A fed bear is a dead bear...
I don't know why I'm hesitant to admit I slept on the roof of my rental car. Maybe it's because I wouldn't sleep on the roof of my own car out of fear of denting the roof or sunroof, but it was a rental car and the inside wasn't comfortable. I slept under the stars and fell asleep to the calls of Whiskered Screech Owls and Mexican Whip-poor-wills.
I'm getting kind of lengthy here, so I'll summarize the next day: I didn't see it.
Mid-afternoon, I decided to re-prioritize. I asked myself, "Should I sit around and wait for this bird to show, or chase a different bird I haven't seen yet?" The answer was clear, and I headed out to see the Slate-throated Redstart. I picked up a friend I had met earlier in the day, and Evan and I headed East to find the Redstart.
When we arrived at the eBird pin, I immediately spotted a cairn marking the spot. After a few minutes of searching, and examining carefully the Painted Restarts, and encountering a small, Downy-like woodpecker, we spotted the Painted Restart feeding actively. It was high in the trees, and we anxiously waited several minutes for it to fly lower, which it did and the bird put on a nice show for us near its nest before disappearing into a thicket for the night. The sun had already disappeared behind the mountains, and although it was still light we set our cameras on the highest ISO possible to take grainy but identifiable photos. I wasn't too upset with the images I managed to make. As we stopped for a celebratory bite to eat, I was relieved that I chose to pursue this bird and abandon my Aztec Thrush stakeout. The Aztec Thrush hasn't been seen since...
I had to return my rental car the next day by noon, and was graciously invited to stay with a friend who I'd met at the Aztec Thrush stakeout. He picked me up from the airport in fine style (my first time riding in a Mercedes-Benz) and we returned to his home where I immediately showered, decompressed, and got caught up on multiple things. I didn't make my standby flight the next day, so we had several hours of birding in the morning on nearby Mt. Lemmon. Our target bird was the Olive Warbler, which was a new species for me for the year. That afternoon we retired to the cooler confines of the house as outside temps pushed 112 degrees Fahrenheit. Before I knew it, I was riding Alaska Airlines comfortably back to Seattle, with my dad waiting to give me a hug and cook me a salmon dinner. I am so grateful to Steve and Michele for hosting me, and helping to extend my Arizona trip by a few days! Thank you!