Herpers look down. We cruise roads in darkness or twilight with our eyes scanning and darting, hypersensitive to serpentine shadows and slinky shapes. We hike trails with our heads on swivels, surveying the landscape and fixing our gaze on likely crevices, protective tree bases and favorable basking spots. Hunting tarantulas is much of the same. Especially when you're a herper. My early years of seeking tarantulas were all in the desert. We have no tree-dwelling American species. Even in the rainforest, with my field trip mates looking for pink-toed tarantulas in Suriname or ornamental 'tiger spiders' in Sri Lanka, I battled my conditioning to look down.
Birders look up. It's much harder on the neck, which is why all of their binocs - or 'bins' as birders like to say - are on elastic harnesses distributing the weight to the back and holding the bins to the chest. My neck is sore. After countless hours of holding my head back as I look for flittering flashes of color in Arizona cypress and sycamore, Alligator juniper, Apache pine and silverleaf oak. I am a 'budding birder', which is a term applied to me by a Cave Creek Canyon Visitor Information Center [VIC] volunteer colleague not my own words. Yeah, I'm learning trees too. They tend to make you look up as well. The neck strain is real.
And here I am soaking my aches. Blogging from the rejuvenating water of Rusty's swim spa. You can set it to produce current that allows you to swim 'laps' treadmill style. That's too much like work. There also is the jacuzzi setting. With the water set to 93ºF and the outside air currently a couple of degrees above that, it a 'mildly hot tub' and soothes my birding neck and my twisted back. My volunteer work at the VIC has included some landscaping duties and today I tried to compact the path to our restrooms and the center itself by wrestling a ditch tamper to no avail.
But back to the budding, nay ASPIRING, birder ... One of our VIC staff couples, Laura and Steve, who are very avid and accomplished birders mingle with the flocks of bin-clutching aviphiles (or do you say ornithophile?) along South Fork Road and South Fork Trail, which I probably have mentioned is in the top 5 places to bird in America, and engage them in discussions and do anything they can to enhance their Cave Creek Canyon birding experience. It's what we do everyday at the VIC as we talk about what has been seen where and detail hotspots throughout the San Simon Valley and Chiricahua Mountains, but it's more fun when you can say 'hey, did you see that Painted Redstart carrying nesting material to the base of that tree (whether you know what tree it is or not!)?' and 'they're ground nesters, you know'. So I have been meeting Laura and Steve each Saturday morning and learning the species, quickly compiling lists of 30 or 40 or more seen before lunch. Laura is an 'ear birder' and identified each by song while Steve searches for the bird where the sound came from. This past Saturday they were joined by a woman for some time and slowed down a bit so I decided to move up trail alone listening for the song of the Elegant Trogon. This distinctive sound (click here) is like nothing else and reverberates in the canyon. Most birders visiting the trail are seeking this bird above all and many have traveled thousands and thousands of miles just for the chance to see one. I hiked up South Fork Trail, which follows Cave Creek and crosses it back and forth numerous times. At this time of the year, between the melt of winter's mountain snow and the monsoons that will begin at the end of June, the first two creek crossings are dry and the third has shallow water easily transversed by rock-stepping. Just above the third crossing I heard a male Trogon and quickened my pace up canyon. After the fourth creek crossing there is a pool of water known as the 'Bathtub' and here the dramatic barking of his song was just above me.
The possibility of seeing an Elegant Trogon has undoubtedly drawn more birders to southern Arizona than anything else that flies. Whether it is here in the Chiricahua Mountains or in the Santa Ritas south of Tucson, this gorgeous - some might say gaudy - bird comes north from Mexico to breed in wooded canyons such as along the South Fork Trail of Cave Creek where it favors sycamores that offer nesting sites created by not one, but two, species of woodpecker. The Trogon is dazzling in its metallic brilliance of green, red and copper. It has a large head, stocky build and long square-tipped tail, and is fairly 'sluggish', often perching in one spot for an extended period only to fly in short bursts to neighboring trees where it rests once again. Birders who are fortunate to have an encounter can often sit on a large rock, rehydrate or have a quick picnic and watch a stunning male for quite some time while listening to its distinctive croaking song.
After pausing at the Bathtub and not hearing the male's song for five minutes or so, I heard it just further up canyon. With the massive rhyolite rock faces of the Chiricahuas reflecting sound, the Trogon's loud croak or bark can be misleading. Many birders comment on how it can sound farther away than the bird is, and also how a song heard farther up trail can disappear only to come from behind you. They sing and then they don't and the silence can be due to relocation, especially as they now compete for the arriving females. I headed up creek to the fifth crossing and his call was right upon me. With my head tilted back scanning the trees it took me a moment to notice the tell-tale presence of other birders. There sitting upon large flat boulders in the creek with their bins glued to their eyes and necks strained rearward were three birders and it only takes observing the direction of their optics to locate their prize. I joined them for what was perhaps fifteen minutes and then after they headed back down the trail I stayed for an hour. I pointed the majestic male out to some other passerbys and stayed until a family group with small children ruined the party. They were ignorant of the bird of a lifetime above and when I asked they keep it down and pointed out both the unusual song and the amazingly colorful bird I got only a disinterested 'pretty bird'. This male didn't perch in an optimal location for the reach of my 400 mm lens, but I'll share here the two best images I was able to capture.
I returned in the past few days and had encounters with two males and also got to see a Blue-fronted Hummingbird on a nest. I look up. I look down. I'm an equal opportunity naturalist these days, I suppose. This morning I am off to look for Burrowing Owls in a location another VIC colleague shared with me. I'll leave you now with an image of a Scaled Quail taken right here at camp. They run on the ground for the most part so they allow you to look up or down.