Monday, June 10, 2013

Southeast Arizona: a birder’s mecca

A year ago while living in Denver, I had a 30 minute commute to work via bus each day. For a while I tried to make good use of the time by reading books. The most inspiring read was Mark Obmascik’s The Big Year. In 2011 there was a movie based on this book starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson. The book details the famous 1998 Big Year competition between Sandy Komito, Al Levinton, and Greg Miller.

The book opens with Sandy Komito sitting in a Denny’s in Nogales, Arizona, with a printout of all the recent rare bird reports in the area, an hour before sunrise on New Year’s Day. As the book describes, “He ordered his second thermos of coffee and spread paperwork across his place mat. One sheet was an Internet printout of a North American rare-bird alert from Houston. The other was a regional alert from Tucson. Komito smiled. There were more rare birds spotted last week in Southeastern Arizona than anywhere else on the continent. His gut told him that this chain restaurant was the right place to start.”

Sandy’s first chase of the year was a Nutting’s Flycatcher at Patagonia Lake State Park. The book gets your heart racing as it describes Sandy’s rush to get in the right place at the right time, and the exchange of “Have you seen the bird?” with complete strangers, who knew exactly what he was talking about. The anticipation and suspense build as Sandy and other birders scour the area for any sign of the bird, some with scopes, some with large sound amplifiers listening for its distinctive call. Finally, someone hollers “I’ve got the bird!”

"Komito ran. His binoculars slapped his chest. What if the bird flew off? His cross-continent hunt closed to its last hundred yards. His stomach knotted. He ran harder. Bird still there? Slow down! Now he was close. The last thing he wanted was to scare it off. Gasping, sweating, heart pounding, he edged ahead on tiptoes."

Sandy of course got his bird. What I got was a new fascination with chasing, with the process of tracking down a rare prize, including all the research, travel to strange places, groggy early mornings, and adrenaline-fueled, suspense-filled foot chases for something that you may only get one chance in a lifetime to see. The sort of stuff that memories are made of.

The book continues to describe some of the amazing places that Sandy, Al, and Greg visited during their big year. I lived their adventures vicariously as they took sea-sickening deep sea pelagic trips in search of birds that are only found when you are miles from the nearest land, as they canoed through the swamps of the Everglades, as they biked across the tundra in Attu, as they scoured Sax Zim bog for rare owls, as they took a ride on what seemed like a pirate ship to the Dry Tortugas, and as they raced Himalayan Snowcocks through the Ruby Mountains in a helicopter. The book gave some of North America’s best birding locations legendary status in my mind, and I started daydreaming about how fun it would be to visit one of these places.

Well this spring we got the chance to make our first ever dedicated birding vacation to somewhere more than a day’s drive away from home. Owing to the fact that I already had a work trip scheduled in Phoenix, Southeast Arizona seemed like the perfect first birding vacation. After hearing of so many fascinating chases like Elegant Trogon in Patagonia Lake State Park, Lucifer Hummingbird at Ash Canyon B&B, Elf Owls in Madera Canyon, and so many more, it felt like we were making our first pilgrimage to the birding Holy Land.

SEAZ books

Some of the most helpful resources for our trip.

Our trip did not disappoint. If any of you have not been, now is the time to sell your first-born child for a trip to Southeast Arizona. You’ll be glad you did.

In just 5 days of early March, before any meaningful migration had even begun, we submitted 52 eBird checklists, and saw 135 species, including 42 lifers. The next several posts will be about our trip to Arizona. So many others have written so much about this wonderful part of the country, so I’ll skip detailed descriptions of getting to the locations we visited, and just share some highlights we were able to photograph.

I owe a debt of gratitude to my wonderful wife Ellen. She and I share a passion for birding, but not for early mornings or late nights. I woke her up hours before sunrise days in a row, and then proceeded to keep her out on narrow cliff-edge roads in the mountains until long after the sun had set, all while getting by on meals that could be described as mediocre at best, or scary and laughable more often (we ordered enchiladas to-go from one restaurant and only learned when they gave us the boxes that they had no plastic forks - imagine eating a gooey enchilada with your bare hands when you only have 5 minutes to snarf it down before heading to a special invitation to view Elf Owls on their nest a week before their arrival was shared with the rest of the birding community). What’s more, we were excited to learn soon after getting home that she did all this while carrying our first child, which we are expecting to arrive towards the end of the year. She sure showed morning sickness who’s the boss!


Ellen at Mount Lemmon, Pima County. March 16, 2013.

UPDATE: Click through to read all the posts from our trip to southeast Arizona:

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