Saturday, July 7, 2012

Day 5: June 18 – Owls and the Old West

Sunrise was a duplicate of the previous night.   Masai Point for quail. None to be had.  Spectacular scenery.  No one else around.  Awesome. 

I was hoping we could take an hour and enjoy a National Park Site just up the street.  Fort Bowie National Historic Site interprets a key storyline in the Indian Wars.  During this sad chapter of American History, American Indians, as I’m sure you know, were gathered up and placed on reservations, or killed. Geronimo and Cochise were active in Southeast Arizona.  Fort Bowie served as a key location for United States forces during their efforts to capture them and other warring Apaches.  Portions of the adobe walls are all that remain, but to history buffs, it is worth it.

We never saw it. According to staff at the Chiricahua National Monument (and supported by the literature), one has to walk to the Visitor Center.  That would be 1.5 miles from where you park. Yes, folks, National Park policy at this site says you walk 1.5 miles in the Arizona desert. In June.  One way.  If I had a handicapped pass, I could drive the maintenance road to the Visitor Center. However, as able-bodied adults, we would have had to cross the open desert for a three-mile round trip. You have to be kidding me. Maybe in January. In June?  No way.  We pressed on.  (I’m sure the policy exists for a reason. I’d sure like to know why!)

A fortunate stop outside the monument scored Scaled Quail and Botteri’s Sparrow before we moved on to what I hoped would be one of Natalie’s favorite stops for the trip.  Indeed, part of the reason we did this trip at all was so she could see the star of the show in Miller Canyon.

When most people think of Spotted Owls, they think of logging in the Pacific Northwest.  That controversy has been ongoing for a few years now.  Add to that mess the idea that the BarredOwl, the look-alike cousin from the east, is moving into the region and killing off the Spotteds and you have a huge storyline involving economics and ecology.

What a lot of people outside the birding community don’t know is this – the Spotted Owl of the Northwest is the Northern Spotted Owl.  It is not a stand-alone species.  In Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, one can find the Mexican Spotted Owl.  Same species, just a different race. Think of it like a beagle and a collie – both are dogs, right?  In this case, however, the birds look the same.  But, they’re different.  But not. Get it?  Basically, a Spotted Owl is a Spotted Owl regardless of where it calls home.  (Another example of this species thing might be an annoying, buzzing insect that you wish would go away…and Rush Limbaugh. That’s the same, right?)

Anyhow, the Spotted Owl pair that had nested in Miller Canyon had young.  Our plan was simple. Hike the trail behind the Beatty’s Guest Ranch and find the tree.   It was even easier knowing someone else had already found the bird.

It was also here in the canyon where a situation unfolded that will give us fits for years (if we let it).  Not far from the Spotted Owl, we spied a bird in the tree tops.  It wasn't far but it never showed itself completely; leaves blocked the view as it foraged.  Three prominent colors - yellow, black, and white.  We never saw the bill, believe it or not, but it was a passerine of some sort.  The wings were black with prominent white wing bars.  The undertail coverts and underside of the tail were white.  Tail feather tips appeared black.  The belly was mostly yellow and contrasted with the undertail coverts (though I cant confirm the nature of the margin between the two locations - smooth transition or hard line?)  The top of head was black, but we could not get a grip on the overall head color.  We agreed the bird was cardinal-sized or so.  No North American bird matches that description to the best of my knowledge.  Thumbing through Mexican Field Guides a few days later turned up nothing that was an exact match. My gut reaction said "Oriole!" when I first saw it, but the marks don't add up.  At all. This Yellow Grosbeak image is close.  Mighty. Damned. Close. I mean it. Mighty. Damned. Close.

After retiring from the Spotted Owl tree, we set up at the Beatty’s hummingbird feeders for while. With a dozen or so feeders and birds zipping all around, the stand-out bird was certainly the Magnificent Hummingbird. Magnificent indeed. 
One thing that can certainly draw tired and thirsty travelers away from a hummingbird feeding station is food and beer.  Back in Bisbee, we pulled over at a little Mexican place for a fine lunch.  I was introduced to Horchata.  Oooooooh.  Milk, rice and cinnamon served over ice. It doesn’t sound like much, but I’ll be giving it a go here at home. Damn good. 

The Old Bisbee Brewing Company in old Bisbee (think Ann Arbor in the desert)is certainly worth a stop. With the next closest brewery being in Tucson (not close at all), this place is a must for birders who also enjoy microbrews. 

Mountain Lime Lager, Belgian Witbier, Pale Ale, Copper City Pale Ale, Apple Peach Pilsner, Double-hopped IPA, and Royal Stout (#1,262 – 1,268) were all on tap.  The IPA and Stout get the honors as far as I am concerned.  The Lime Lager?  Well, it is just like it sounds……… Not good if you ask me.

After securing two antique coffee bags at the local antique market (including one that is at least 50 years old and still contains all the grounds!), we pressed on to Tombstone for lodging.

Yes, that’s right. Tombstone. Wyatt Earp. DocHollidayThe Vendetta Ride. It all happened here.  One of the coolest towns in the country….and it wraps up the sidewalks at 5:00pm.

Okay, you can still venture into the Bird Cage Theatre (of the oldest structures in town).  You can see the very storefront were Wyatt Earp’s brother, Morgan, was shot in the back while shooting pool.  I believe it is a clothing store now.  The wooden sidewalks. The feel. The look.  History walks those streets right along with you. 

Fortunately, “fine dining” is still available.  After a quick bite at Big Nose Kate’s Saloon (she was Doc’s partner and common-law wife), we left town for a sunset drive.   In short, I botched the lodging and it was about to cost us Lesser Nighthawk.   We needed a street light away from town.

Heading north, the floodlights of a Border Patrol checkpoint loomed ahead. Knowing damn well I can’t turn around (they would chase me, for sure, thinking I had illegal aliens in the car), I just drove up to the check point. We had nothing to hide.

When asked by the armed guys what was going on, I explained that my girlfriend and I were in from Michigan and we were doing some bird watching.

“……and one of the birds we were hoping to see……. RIGHT THERE!”, I said.  A Lesser Nighthawk shot in front of the car, followed by another, and another and another.

For the next three or four minutes (an eternity at a checkpoint if you think about it) and with traffic starting to pile up behind us, the officer and I chatted about Nighthawks.  He commented about how much he and his crew like those birds and how the floodlights attract the insects that are in turn eaten by the birds.  When the birds aren’t around, the bugs make them miserable!  The Border Patrol in on the record for officially being a fan of Lesser Nighthawks!

I asked him if it was okay for us to park off to the side, get out and enjoy and show. With his blessings, Natalie and I enjoyed one of the best experiences of the trip. Lesser Nighthawks at point blank range. Swooping around. Landing on the road.  Opening that massive mouth of theirs ready to eat a bug the size of your head. Awesome.

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