Thursday, July 31, 2008

Chisos Death March

Today is the day. Colima Warbler. Into the mountains and back. 12 miles round trip.

I actually started in the dark with my headlamp, binoculars, camera, lunch, first aid kit and almost two gallons of water and Gatorade (almost 16 pounds of fluids alone). The earlier the start, the cooler the temps. Mark, the day before, had mentioned that I should do the Pinnacle Trail. It is shorter, but steeper so you get to the bird’s altitude quicker. Okay, sounds like a plan.

I’m glad I did it, but what a killer.

A buddy of mine had purchased for me one of those ball caps that you soak in cold water. It has a cellular structure that allows it to keep the water for hours. It helps with sweating and evaporation and ultimately helps you stay cool. I had “charged it” and put it in a zip-loc bag. My intention was to use it on the way down. I had it on in 30 minutes into my hike.

I was almost at the top when I had one of the best encounters of the whole trip. Only 20-30 feet in front of me, I kicked up a BOBCAT! I was not paying attention to the trail; my attention was in the trees. It must have been snoozing under a rock right along the trail edge. It bolted just a few feet up the trail, scratching madly in the dirt for traction. It went off to the right and circled back. It hid behind a brush pile and watched me, maybe 50 feet away. After cleaning out my underwear, I managed a few photos with my dinky lens. I was prepared, on the spot to swap it out for my telephoto lens. When I stooped down, he certainly became interested in what I was doing. I took that as a sign to move along.

About 100 yards down the trail, I swapped out my small lens for my 100-400mm. I did not want to have another cool encounter and be stuck with a dinky lens. For grins, I went back and there he was. For just a few moments, I took some photos. Over the sequence, you can see his eyelids get heavy. How awesome. I left him to his nap.

Within two hours, I had covered the 1600 foot altitude change. I immediately started to hear the trills of the COLIMA WARLBER. Within 10 minutes, I was looking at one. Life bird 606. I even managed a poor photo of one. It really stunned me how easy it was to find them. The trick of getting one is not finding it, but simply getting to the Chisos Mountains during the breeding season and making the hike.

During my time there, I managed some great birds, including Hepatic Tanager, Western Tanager, Painted Redstart, Band-tailed Pigeon, and Mexican Jay. The Western Tanager gave me some fits. After leaving the mountains, it suddenly hit me that it could have been the Flame-colored Tanager. The FC was a first year male and looked somewhat like a very pale first year Western. The Western I had was pale. It was not until I got home that I finally saw photos of the Flame-colored. My bird was certainly a Western. I never found the Flame-colored, though it was seen by others after me.

For those of you may not know, I’m a doctor. Oh, yes, I read my books, watch medical shows on the Discovery Health Channel, own a reproduction Civil War amputation kit, and have been told I look like Anthony Edwards from “ER” (I think he looks like me, but whatever). So, I was keenly aware of some possible medical issues from hiking into the mountains, mainly, dehydration. So, I drank a lot of fluids. In fact, I was excited that I actually had to pee! They have these crafty little bathrooms up there. So, like a good doctor, I paid attention to my urine. Far more yellow than it should have been. “Oooooooh, not good”, I said out loud. That’s a sure sign of dehydration given my fluid intake.

Now, it was decision time. It was noon, and I had used up a little more than half of my water. I had to get back down yet and do it during the hottest part of the day. I gave myself about 30 more minutes to find the Tanager. I did not. To make matters worse, I knew I could not do the Pinnacles trail on the way down so I opted for the gradual grade of the Laguna Meadows Trail. No shade for miles. Almost all of my water was gone by the time I got back to my car. I immediately dumped my hat into my cooler, pulled the plug on the drainhole (also called a “bunghole”) and immediately placed my head under the flowing ice water. Ice water never felt so good. The Coke was great, too.

Now, some of you might be thinking my head was in my bunghole (as opposed to under a bunghole) for doing such a silly thing (i.e. climb a mountain in the desert for a bird). But, I am not stupid. I knew my limits. “Watch the water. Watch the time. Watch the birds”. It’s all pretty simple. Sure I would have liked to spent more time looking for the Flame-colored Tanager, but all reports are that it was seen very early the day and then not again until the following day. I was not going to be like one of these clowns that summits Everest…and then dies. I was not going to be the target of a National Park rescue operation at your expense as a taxpayer. I saw one other hiker the entire day. That’s it. One. For all I know, right now, he is a desiccated bobcat stool sample. Enjoy the trip, find your birds, but don’t be a moron.

(All that said, I did not realize at the time how great a bird the Flame-colored Tanager is for a United States list. Apparently, very good. Had I known, then perhaps I would have tried again. Perhaps not. We will never know now.)

Sure enough, it was too hot to cook when I finally got back to camp. Dinner was at the lodge with a beautiful sunset over the Basin.

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