Travis goes to Camp Chiricahua: Marie McGee

“Would you like to use Travis today?”

Jennie didn’t have to offer twice. I was eager to help Travis add a life bird or two – although with a life list well surpassing my own, he could probably give me a few pointers! It would be an exciting day, as 2013 Victor Emanuel Nature Tours Camp Chiricahua transitioned from the scenic Chiricahua Mountains to the lower elevation of Sierra Vista and the San Pedro River area. Before departure, however, we would spend a final morning birding the forested slopes of Cave Creek Canyon, keeping our eyes and ears open for the iconic Elegant Trogon.

Ringtail up a tree © Jennie Duberstein

Ringtail up a tree © Jennie Duberstein

 

Binoculars get as little rest as their owners. After three amazing nights spent looking for night creatures (ringtails and rattlers and tarantulas, to name a few!) we met our leaders Michael O’Brien, Louise Zemaitis, and Jennie Duberstein by the vans at 5:30 am. Less than ten minutes later we piled out again. Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers were numerous, squeaking from among the trees. A Plumbeous Vireo joined in the chorus. Then, out of the growing symphony rose the melancholy notes of a Dusky-capped Flycatcher, perched in a tree just above eye-level. A lifer for both of us! The lemon-bellied bird sat up just long enough for me to take in its warm brown cap and contrasting pale gray throat before dipping down to hide behind some dense growth.

In addition to a life bird, Travis and I gained a nemesis bird, for the trogons remained elusive. However, further birding along the road that morning did yield views of adorable Bridled Titmice accompanied by the flashy Painted Redstart, while White-throated Swifts fluttered overhead.

After breakfast we loaded up the vans and headed down out of the Chiricahuas, passing though the tiny town of Portal and into the desert, flanked by mountains on either side.

Throughout the drive, we periodically pulled off to stop and search for birds. Most were species that I had just become acquainted with in the past few days, and it was a thrill to see a Zone-tailed Hawk camouflaged within a group of soaring Turkey Vultures, and to observe as a Phainopepla sallied overhead, snatching insects for breakfast.

Zone-tailed Hawk © Jeff Bouton

Zone-tailed Hawk © Jeff Bouton

We even stopped the vans and turned around when Michael spotted a nest by the side of the road. Twelve feet up in a tree, calmly disregarding the parade of noisy vehicles racing past, two juvenile Swainson’s Hawks sat surveying their domain. The young birds were comically scruffy, scrawny-necked, and small-headed. Soon, however, an adult soared into the nest, reminding me of the elegant creatures that the awkward nestlings would soon become. Having made its point, the parent bird took off again, soaring lightly out over the field on tapered wings.

Our final stop that day was at the San Pedro House, part of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation area. Here the verdant riparian struck a pleasant contrast with the barren desert habitat through which we had been traveling. At first it seemed that the birds had gone silent in the heat of the afternoon. However, as we explored the lightly shaded paths around San Pedro House, the calls of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a Yellow-breasted Chat, and a Lucy’s Warbler confirmed that the birds were there, even if we couldn’t see them. If only binoculars had ears – the Lucy’s would have been a life bird! But there is no ‘heard only’ list for Travis. He would have to see the birds with his own two lenses.

The Author scanning Wilcox Ponds with the Televid APO spotting scope... sorry Travis, some views are better at higher magnification! (photo © Jennie Duberstein)

The Author scanning Wilcox Ponds with the Televid APO spotting scope… sorry Travis, some views are better at higher magnification! (photo © Jennie Duberstein)

But the day had one last piece of excitement in store. As we followed the path back to our vans along a wide field, I had my first glimpse of a brilliant male Lazuli Bunting, a flash of blue dipping in and out of the tall grass. I was disappointed to learn that Travis had ticked the colorful bunting in California, but the knowledge did nothing to take away from the enjoyment of this beautiful bird that I had dreamed about seeing.

 

Lazuli Bunting  © Jeff Bouton

Lazuli Bunting © Jeff Bouton

Like every other day at Camp Chiricahua it was a unforgettable one, memorable not just for the birds we saw and the places we visited, but for the people (and binoculars!) I was able to experience them with. Our leaders were incredibly generous, always willing to share their expertise and boundless enthusiasm for nature, and we met many others along the way who gave openly of their time and knowledge. Camp Chiricahua 2013 was a once in a lifetime experience that I will always treasure!