Rookie bird watchers
Each person we met on the trail asked the same question: “Have you seen the Elegant Trogon.”
Our first, uninformed response was, “The what?”
The questioner gently explained that, here, beside Sonoita Creek, just as it feeds into Patagonia Lake, a rare, brightly plumed visitor from Mexico spends his winters. People from across the country come each year to try to see the bird, which has feathers of iridescent green, bright red and white. One birder, we heard, had come for 15 years to seek him, leaving dejected each time. Others wander down the path once and practically bump into him. The women camping next to us had photos.
There were telling clues that we were in birding country: binoculars around the necks of everyone we passed, camouflaged camera lenses as long your arm, and a practiced silence as groups peered into the branches.
As Tom and I stomped along the trail at our usual hiking pace, we wondered at the fuss. We occasionally gave the trees a quick scan and saw nothing. What was it with these birders?
Maybe you have to stand still, we decided. So we did. And we saw a couple of birds flitting around the trees, but nothing to get too excited about.
Maybe we should have brought our binoculars, we thought. We have two pairs safely stowed above our seats in The Epic Van. And a bird book, which we could see many of the birders carrying with them, rather than storing in their vehicle.
Maybe we needed some guidance. When in Rome.
Birdwatchers at Sonoita Creek, looking for the elusive Elegant Trogon.
I admit I had a preconception of birders: bookish, obsessive, reserved, odd. And when we arrived the next morning at 9 a.m. for the guided bird walk, a brief glance at the group would seem to have proved me right.
But soon we were treated to an amazing wealth of birding knowledge, graciously shared with us newbies. John, who led our group, could quickly point out a fluttering wing, direct us to its location on a specific branch, identify its species and give us the telling detail, a ring around the eye, a black bar across the wing, a particular type of movement.
As we moved slowly down the path, we saw ducks paddling along, upending themselves while eating. There were ruddy ducks that have blue bills, and cinnamon teals, a beautiful orange-red duck. And pied-billed grebes, which the Cornell Lab of Ornithology calls part submarine because they use their thick beaks to kill and eat crustaceans.
Farther down the path we saw a ladder-backed woodpecker, which John pointed out was a female. The males have a red patch on their head, “sort of like a yarmulke. Is that OK to say? Maybe I should have a different description for that.” We also saw a ruby-crowned kinglet, which flutters like a falling leaf through a tree, then up again. And a Gila woodpecker, a Cooper’s hawk, a black phoebe, a goldfinch, a Bewick’s wren, a Northern cardinal, and a great egret, standing tall and snowy white among the reeds.
Each bend in the path, each stand of trees, held a new delight, previously invisible, only revealed by John and the other veteran birders.
Perhaps the most stunning sighting was the vermilion flycatcher, with its jaw-dropping red feathers. The one we spotted sat for several minutes on a long outstretched limb, catching the late morning sunlight, watching us, watching it.
The star attraction, the Elegant Trogon, did not appear, but I wasn’t disappointed, because, as a novice, I was so full of wonder at what I saw.
As we reached the end of the tour, three hours later, our new birding friends cautioned us about the hobby.
“You’ll be obsessed,” they said. “You’ll never be the same.”
Perhaps they were right. Two nights later, camped on the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. Tom and I went out looking for wild turkeys in a cottonwood stand in Empire gulch. We found none. As we peered through our binoculars we saw only a few birds, and none that we could identify.
In honor of the Elegant Trogon, I decided to give them my own names. For the ducks flying overhead, the Impatient Travelers, those little brown things in the mesquite trees, the Ephemeral Scamps, and that large-winged hawk that soared far overhead, the Imperial Observer.
I’ll update them when I get more practice.