Saturday, June 20, 2020

The COVID Cannonball Chase

Lets start with the numbers, 3450 miles, 96 hours, 8 states, 1 virus, 2 crazy birders, 1 penguin, 2 tents, one too many rolls of toilet paper, and in the end two lifer birds, 805 total...and a big a$$ cat.  All in one great bird chase in the COVID Era...

So we went to Madison WI to celebrate our twins Allwin and Tyko's 25th birthday, and after arriving back at 11 PM I slept for 4 hours and headed out on a nutsy Cannonball style bird chase with fellow crazy-man, Don Harrington, the man with the biggest tripod in all of birding and headed south towards Arizona in search of unicorns and hopefully not COVID.

We had thought about flying, but a good portion of flights to Phoenix get cancelled and by the time one fools around, you'd be halfway there, even if the posted $415 round trip price looked okay.  Portal Arizona is not that close to Phoenix either, and are airplanes really safe?

We targeted our victim, the elusive Crescent chested warbler, but then as the weekend came around a great bird, an eared quetzal  was found in the same mountain range, my favorite sky island the Chiricahuas, it was gone, and then refound,  So we headed south with the quetzal being our primary target, leaving home at 4 AM Monday, and in Clear Lake, SD, I hooked up with Don Harrington.  We headed southwest like madmen.

We blew down Nebraska, Kansas, supplied up at Garden City, Kansas
We momentarily slowed for a photo at Guymon, Oklahoma as we cut the panhandle, cutting two counties in the Okie state, we learned Guymon has got games and it also has "stream power" even if the casino was closed and the city doesn't have a river,

We sped past Goodwell, Oklahoma, the home of one of my favorite named schools, Oklahoma Panhandle State University, the Alabama in Men's Rodeo, but shockingly the school only has a 23% graduation rate, and this is as low as it gets.  University of Oklahoma, a notorious party and football school graduates 65%, so is it being out in the middle of nowhere.  Western International University in Phoenix has a scary bad graduation rate of 2.4% but is a rather suspicious looking online school.  A raft of community colleges have between 2.5 and 10 percent, but the worst looking 4 year schools in America are Southern University of New Orleans (a historical black college and Texas College of Tyler, both around 12%.  Why Southern is so abysmal when Grambling also in Louisiana and a historical black college has a 65% rate is unknown, and Texas College....a "private" historically black college loses half of its freshman class in a year.  Lowest Freshman retention rate in the country.  There is an essay here about this problem but this is for another person.  What is that Private tuition fees getting you?  Oklahoma Panhandle may be suspect academically, but you can bring your horse to school AND you are greeted by a gun-toting cowboy on the front gate.

So we got through the former Cimarron Territory or No-Man's Land and into Texas, and then New Mexico reach Tucumcari at dark, but we still had over 500 miles to go.  We sped through the state and then at 2:00 AM in Lordsburg, we filled gas and tried a Denny's, no dice closed, so I took over the wheel and we headed on.  Closed restaurants, rest areas, stores with limited access are the norm now, travel is NOT easy, and as we would learn later, in New Mexico and Arizona especially so.

Now I had a lucky break, as after Albuquerque, I couldn't sleep in the car, so I tried using my phone as a hotspot to check on intel for the quetzal.  It was not seen, then a birder I know found it somewhat miraculously, 10 miles away on the other side of the range, in the Pinery Canyon, no doubt he had found it so I demurred...should I go there?  The computer struggled for bandwidth, as to why in America we want 5G and we can't even get 3G on a major interstate is beyond me.  Then I saw one post before my power died, quetzal seen back in Cave Creek area near dark, really?  the bird is flying that much?   Wow.  It sounded like they had put the bird to bed so since an easier place to go we continued on as scheduled.

As I crept into the Cave Creek area we noticed all the National Forest Campgrounds were closed, I'd heard the bit on no bathrooms but didn't check on the ones at trailheads I've seen before as they were out of our way.  We turned up the road where the quetzal was last seen, patrolled the road in the dark, deciding that the campground was too tight to arrive in the night so I found a wide place and we parked the Jeep.

It took 30 minutes for the birds to wake up and then I swore I heard a quetzal, and a robin, I listened closely as anticipation stirred me, and even Don came too, then as the sky lightened up, I could see a guy parked near the entrance of the campground in a old black pickup stir, using my bins I could see he was readying a tripod.  We started to get organized too.  I needed boots and a sweat shirt the only warm items I brought with.

Don was taking forever getting his tripod, camera, etc organized and so I wandered down to the campground and soon learned a concerted coordinated effort was being hatched to check on the roost tree when it was possible to see the birds, Don was still not ready so....I followed and then there it was....my first eared quetzal, it was too dark to photo the bird, I had to tell Don and then....it flew twenty yards and behold the bird landed in the tree next to our Jeep and as Don would later say, "the birds come to me."  It had and so, leaning against a fortuitously parked Jeep we watched the unicorn ghost bird of the the Southwest for 30 minutes snapping pictures.

I got some really great shots despite the early morning light
Eared quetzal

It was a nice bird, people were coming and well, there was another good bird to find, the crescent chested warbler.  We'd both seen a berylline hummingbird before so that didn't interest us, so off we went to climb up and over Onion Saddle and make our way to the Turkey Creek area on the other side, some 35 miles away.

As it looked we missed the warbler by a few minutes, the warblers had mixed into a feeding flock, and were all over the valley and despite being at the stakeout the rest of the day and seeing a good portion of the flock, we never saw the crescent chested warbler, but we saw some olive warblers and Grace's and red-faced warblers are not commonly seen birds by me so it was fun.
Arizona woodpecker
Grace's warbler
Mexican Chickadee


Northern pygmy owl my first ever photo of this bird, it had just taken a junco

Painted redstart

Red-faced warbler
So it was a long day and then, we went back to the campsite to set up for the evening
first I had a little problem with the tent

and then a little problem with the lifer beer

The next morning I woke up refreshed, made cowboy coffee and then realized I had a French press with and then, it was off to the birding stakeout
This was when Don had a toilet paper moment, proving YES, YOU CAN HAVE TOO MUCH TOILET PAPER WITH...as he decided that as we were walking up the trail, maybe he should bring some with...just in case.  being prepared can be a good thing, but alas, not this time.... So off he went to the car, I walked around the corner another thirty feet and then to my left, there was a warbler in a bush.  I looked at it thinking it was a Grace's and then.....no wing bars, and it stopped and looked at me, S$%%t!!!
Crescent chested warbler..........."Don!"  I yelled.
then remembering my camera, I tried to get it into the view finder but I was not set for the light so I adjusted that and then could not find it in the view finder as it flit.  "DON!"  I yelled again, then three more times before, unable to get it photographed, i got blurry leaves, it flew off, just as Don skipped around the corner all TPed up.  I just looked at him
"So you thought you needed toilet paper....."  I said and then told him what had happened.

So we worked the area and about 20 minutes later a couple came through and as they were leaving a red-faced warbler and another bird came into a oak above us, I looked at the one in the leaves and then....there it was again, I yelled for the couple and they ca,me back, but it flew out the back end...no one else saw it, Don just saw yellow in leaves and of course he had a good supply of toilet paper in his pocket that he never used.  I never got a photo but I got a bird, and sometimes that is all you get

I did get some butterfly photos
Arizona sister

Mourning cloak

Nabakov's satyr

We bugged out at noon...I had lifers 804 and 805, a double, and that was a good thing, and seeing a pygmy owl is a good thing as I've seen more other species of pygmy owls than the most common one, the northern.  ..needing to drive hard, we took the Fort Bowie shortcut, saving us an hour, and were surprised that this road wasn't that bad.  Here was where Leroy wanted to go look for relatives because he thought that there was a good water here, meant that there was beach front property in Arizona, I had to rescue him...again....that dang penguin

We made camp at Jemez Falls Campground in the Santa Fe National Forest, it had just opened and was quite cautious about no water, no fires, no touching, and the campground host had some serious issues with signs, hazard tape, and closed roads.  This was better than the Jemez Pueblo below which is where I got my last speeding ticket in 2016, which was closed, all the roads were blocked by earthworks and concrete barriers and signs told us to keep out!  It was like a dystopian scene.
our goal.....daybreak black swifts, but alas, up at 5 am and on stakeout at 0530, in shorts no jacket in Crocs in 40 degree morning left us dipping of swifts.
Don on stakeout before frostbite set in
 we did see a dipper
so were we late, had they not arrived yet?  I don't know, I hope they weren't all destroyed down south in the winter.
We waited too long to find them and then headed off to home
it was 1100 mile day, and despite having to show IDs in Los Alamos, and run the COVID gauntlet at rest areas and McDonald's for coffee we got through New Mexico, it shouldn't take a mile of hazard tape to go to the bathroom
Colorado gave way to Kansas, I got a nice burrowing owl photo in Kansas
Kansas gave way to Nebraska and then at 1 am I saw the creature of the trip, 25 miles north of Norfolk, a cougar, an impressive beast stood on the side of the road looking at me, but it didn't register for a moment of the importance of what i was looking at before it was gone and Don was asleep....sigh....I am the worst guide, but at least I saw it, and the warbler and we both saw the quetzal a great ABA bird in anyone's list
but it was a long and fast trip a 10 day trip, we did in 4, and that quetzal disappeared two days after we saw it so, good thing I hustled down there

Birding in COVID days?
Brave brave thing.
most of the birders had masks on even on the trails, I learned it is hard to push it up hill with a mask on....in a Dollar Store, seems like a good idea, out on the trail.....I don't know.....closed bathroom across the state?  Well you got to go somewhere, and a bathroom is a better place than behind a tree...I think some people aren't thinking........I think being outside is always good, closing all the restaurants, well, one can make food on the road, and by the looks of it, people are desperate to get outside and do something.....it beats an apartment building

stay safe wherever you are....



3 comments:

  1. The birds appear fluffed up as if they've cold. Was it?
    BTW, great story thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You make the effort..... you get the good results.

    ReplyDelete

The COVID Cannonball Chase

Lets start with the numbers, 3450 miles, 96 hours, 8 states, 1 virus, 2 crazy birders, 1 penguin, 2 tents, one too many rolls of toile...