Bird Watching or Birding? An Exploration in Arizona’s Sky Islands

By Don Stap
April 12, 2016
Madera Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona by John Rakestraw Madera Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona. Photo by John Rakestraw.
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In early May we are driving south from Phoenix on Interstate 10. The land in every direction is sparsely vegetated—saguaro, organ pipe, cholla, and barrel cactus, and mesquite. Dust blows across this big sandbox. The sky is hazy. To the east, in the distance, massive heaps of dirt look like leftovers from some grand construction project gone wrong. But this is a trick of light. These hills of dirt are, in fact, some of southeast Arizona’s famous “sky islands,” roughly 40 small mountain ranges that rise from the desert.

Ascending from the desert into a sky island is much like stepping from an arid plain into a Canadian forest, from cactus and mesquite to pine and fir. Such a range of life zones accounts for the great diversity of birdlife in this corner of the state: 400 species or more in any given year, some of them breeding birds, some using the sky islands as stopover sites during migration.

My wife Terry and I are headed to Green Valley, 40 miles north of the Mexican border. With only a week to spend in this part of the state, we’ve decided to explore the nearby Santa Rita Mountains for three days, then head 90 miles east to the Huachuca Mountains, where we’ll meet up with my oldest friend, a nature photographer and avid birder. I’ve known John for more than 40 years, and although we are both fascinated with birds, I think of myself as a bird watcher and him a birder—even though I’m not certain of the distinction between the two, or if there is one. It seems appropriate that here, among one of the greatest displays of birds in the country, I let this contestable taxonomy stir in the back of my mind for the next few days.

East of Green Valley, the Santa Ritas rise to more than 9,000 feet. The road leading into them follows Madera Canyon, carved by the creek that runs through it, the result of thousands of years of snowmelt finding its way down the mountains. Our days there are slow and filled with gangs of raucous Mexican Jays, clown-faced Acorn Woodpeckers, Painted Redstarts, Lesser Goldfinches, Black-headed Grosbeaks, White-winged Doves, Canyon Wrens, Bell’s Vireos, Summer Tanagers, and more. We spend three days in Madera Canyon, often taking an hour or two in one spot, letting the birds come to us, not concerned if we might be missing something just up the trail. If we, ourselves, had a few thousand years, I think we could have stayed that long and not gotten bored. But after this slow start, we drive east to Sierra Vista, near the foot of the Huachuca Mountains, to meet up with John and spend the next few days hopscotching from one well-known birding site to another.

Top to bottom: Mexican Jay and Black-headed Grosbeak by Gary Kramer; Summer Tanager by David Speiser; Canyon Wren by Dave Welling; Curve-billed Thrasher and Scott’s Oriole by Tom Vezo/Minden Pictures; Black-chinned Hummingbird by Dave Welling; Black-throated Sparrow by Tom Vezo/Minden Pictures.Top to bottom: Mexican Jay and Black-headed Grosbeak by Gary Kramer; Summer Tanager by David Speiser; Canyon Wren by Dave Welling; Curve-billed Thrasher and Scott’s Oriole by Tom Vezo/Minden Pictures; Black-chinned Hummingbird by Dave Welling; Black-throated Sparrow by Tom Vezo/Minden Pictures.

Over dinner, John tells us he was also in Madera Canyon yesterday, but our paths did not cross. He pulls out a checklist for the birds of Madera Canyon and marks off those he saw. “Seventy-three species,” he says at last. “Not too bad for one day.” I think about my own list, recorded in my notebook. I’ve made note of only the birds that interested me. Why include something as plain as the cowbird I saw? John’s life list for North America rests at 607 species, exceptional I think for someone who’s taken only three birding tours in his life. My life list is…I have no idea. Over the years, I’ve sometimes checked off birds in different field guides or bird checklists, but the lists are incomplete.

John takes some pride in how many species he saw here or there, as if he was engaged in a birding competition—but a competition with himself. “Birding,” in the sense we use it today, acquired a foothold in the language in the 1960s and spread rapidly, replacing “bird watching” at the same time that bird enthusiasts began to grow in numbers and Christmas Bird Counts, Big Days, and Big Years became serious—but friendly (well, usually friendly)—competitions. I suspect that the change to “birder” also had something to do with the way bird watchers were portrayed in the media: skinny, bespectacled middle-age men (and it was usually men) wearing outfits resembling Boy Scout attire. By the 1970s, the nature tour business was thriving, giving birders the opportunity to visit bird-rich areas in the company of expert guides.

John grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and spent time in the summers at the Kalamazoo Nature Center—much of it doing volunteer work clearing trails. Older, more experienced naturalists became his friends, teaching him what they knew of the plants and animals in the area. I grew up in farm country northeast of Kalamazoo where I explored the farm fields, woods, marshes, and lakeshores. There were only three houses within a mile of my house in either direction. I didn’t have a true field guide or binoculars, but learned the birds using the pocket-size guide “to the most familiar American birds” that my mother had given me. I wonder if my lack of guidance (which was just fine with me) has something to do with the way I now look at birds.

John has planned our next three days carefully. Unlike the three lazy days Terry and I spent in Madera Canyon, we will now move purposefully from one well-known birding site to another, spending only an hour in some areas and two to three hours at others. With this approach we hope to see the greatest variety of birds possible. At our first stop we see a couple dozen species, including a Curve-billed Thrasher, Spotted Towhee, Scott’s Oriole, and then move on to a hummingbird haven where at nine different feeders we watch a brilliant cast of hummers. It feels a bit odd to me to sit (in a row of bleachers nonetheless) and watch the hummers, but they are mesmerizing nonetheless. Their iridescent colors, speed and agility, and feisty demeanors packed into delicate bodies make them beguiling. We watch for a long time as these whirring avian ninja warriors battle for supremacy at favored spots. Magnificent, Broad-tailed, White-eared, and Black-chinned hummers skip the light fandango, and I am as lost in their gyrations as I am in time and old song lyrics.

On day two we drive to the Paton House in Patagonia, famous as the only reliable place in the U.S. to see a Violet-crowned Hummingbird, and as promised we see one not long after we’ve arrived. I feel a pull to stay and watch the other birds—I could watch the orioles for hours—but we are birding and stick to the schedule that John has worked out to see as many species as possible. We drive north to a rarely traveled side road off Highway 82.

Some years back this spot became famous when a pair of Rose-throated Becards, a tropical species rarely seen north of Mexico, nested here, but today we are looking for another pair of “exotics”: Thick-billed Kingbirds. (These birds must laugh behind our backs at the fuss we make over them because they’ve crossed over our political boundary.) We walk up and down the road in the company of a few other birders, and after 20 minutes someone spots the kingbirds. They are sitting on a branch in the open. The lighting is not the best, but we get a good enough look to see their thick bills, which remind me of those of the Loggerhead Shrikes I see in Florida.

I confess I’m pleased to see this “rarity,” and find myself enjoying this typical birding moment. But it also reminds me of the time John jumped in his truck and drove seven hours to New Mexico’s Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to see, as he said, “the rarest bird in America right now”: the first United States record for a Rufous-necked Wood-Rail. He emailed me a photo of the rail.

A few years ago, several Fork-tailed Flycatchers caused a stir in central Florida. They were a good bit north of their usual range in Central and South America. They are striking birds—tails more than twice as long as their bodies—and stories appeared each week in the newspaper about how many birders were arriving to see them. These birds were 40 minutes north of my house, and were easy to view because each evening they perched in the same place on a telephone wire.

But I couldn’t convince myself to get in the car and drive the short distance to see them. I didn’t like the idea of standing on the road with three or four dozen other people in order to place them on my non-existent life list. But hadn’t I done just that with the Thick-billed Kingbirds? And why was I in Arizona? Why did I get excited the last time I was here when I saw my first Painted Redstart, my first Verdin, my first Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher?

By the end of our trip I’m no closer to a clear and unarguable distinction between birder and bird watcher than when we began. I do know that when we were with John I was fully and happily engaged in what I think of as birding, noting when I saw a bird for the first time. So I must be both a bird watcher and a birder. And why not?

A week later, back home in Florida, I look through a notebook of my Arizona observations and stop at my notes on a Lark Sparrow, a lovely bird whose ornate head markings of black, white, and chestnut are (as Roger Tory Peterson has said) a bit like those of a quail. When we saw the bird with John, I could not remember if I’d seen one before. I pull an old, tattered field guide of western birds off my bookshelf—the one I used when I lived in Utah for six years in the 1970s. I see no notes beside the Lark Sparrow’s entry, so most likely I saw it for the first time on this trip. On the same page, however, I see a note by the Black-throated Sparrow that reads “Arizona—Waputki National Monument—April 1978.” I smile.

Seven years ago, Terry and I saw Black-throated Sparrows every day around the cabin we rented at the base of the Chiricahua Mountains, and I was delighted that I was seeing a bird I’d never seen before. Perhaps a faulty memory and the lack of a proper life list (the defining traits of a bird watcher?) are a good thing. I felt the excitement that comes with seeing a new bird twice over. Never mind that it was the same species.

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