Just for the birds: My Big One-Quarter Year Part IV – Idaho Press

Costa’s hummingbird by Glenn Seplak.
Greater roadrunner by Andrej Chudý.
Black-throated sparrow by Ken Miracle.
Vermilion flycatcher by Félix Uribe.
LeConte’s thrasher by Alan Schmierer.
Bendire’s thrasher by Steve Valasek.

Costa’s hummingbird by Glenn Seplak.
Greater roadrunner by Andrej Chudý.
Black-throated sparrow by Ken Miracle.
Vermilion flycatcher by Félix Uribe.
LeConte’s thrasher by Alan Schmierer.
Bendire’s thrasher by Steve Valasek.


I continue to share my summer of birding in 1971 — a three-month trip along the U.S.-Mexico border and up the Rocky Mountains — to experience great new birds and new country.
It was late July when I pulled into a campground in Organ Pipe National Monument and grabbed a perfect camp site. Utterly impossible in 2022. Organ Pipe in those days was devoid of people. I didn’t feel like I was in a national monument, but more like I was just out in the desert with the good luck of decent roads and a picnic table.
My single canteen for hiking had served well so far. It was a World War II aluminum canteen my dad gave me, surrounded by a padded canvas covering you soaked with water to provide evaporative cooling. I figured out that this amount of water — 1 quart — would only get you far enough into the desert to die of thirst soon thereafter. I bought a “water bottle” — new to me — from the monument gift shop to up my capacity to a half gallon. Still not much.
The night skies were spectacular, and I loved pulling my sleeping bag out onto the bare desert pavement. If a bit of a squall came in, it was a short trip to the shelter of my solid canvas tent. I didn’t even have a sleeping pad but savored the feeling of the hard earth beneath me.
Today, I have somewhat different ideas of comfort. I now have a full-length REI camp bed and a heavy wool blanket from the Peruvian Andes for the floor of my backpacking tent. Pure pleasure. My dog, Sienna, agrees. No need for a 40-foot trailer here. We like hearing deer and wild horses chomping grass outside our thin walls. Coyotes yip-yapping and rain plinking on the rain fly … ah, amazing. Snow pishing outside. Yes. Perfect.
The desert night was not quiet. I figured out lesser nighthawk and common poorwill from the text descriptions in my guides. Remember — no online or other audio resources were available outside a few LP records, which required a record player (look it up) and a power cord. But there were a variety of other sounds in the Sonoran night I could not figure out. Who knows what they were? Herps and insects were utterly unknown to me. It turns out some of the sounds were likely the strange calls produced by both lesser nighthawks and common poor wills. What’s a chupacabra sound like? Not knowing what’s out there adds to the adventure, especially when you’re outside the tent.
Each morning began another day of discovery. All I had to do was wake up and go birding. New things awaited around every cactus and desert shrub. It wasn’t just finding new species. It was also about seeing birds I’d already encountered from Big Bend on and trying to identify them in a different setting. Had I learned anything?
A bird which had become a friend over recent weeks was the lesser nighthawk. As with our common nighthawk in Idaho, these birds flew over the landscape at dusk and made the desert complete. When all the other species had gone to roost, except crickets, frogs, and other unknown creatures, the lesser nighthawks effortlessly wove paths across the sky.
One of the most beautiful raptors anywhere in the world is found in these southwestern deserts — Harris’s hawk. This is not just another chicken hawk. Harris’s hawks are social, cooperating at nests and hunting together. Like coyotes, lions, wolves, and other social predators, they will team up to drive prey toward team members and take turns going after it until the prey tires. Harris’s hawk is popular with falconers and in education programs because of its social nature. As I mentioned last week, this is one raptor you will probably see during Fall Flights at the World Center for Birds of Prey.
A predator that surely is more terrifying for reptiles and other ground dwellers in this region is the greater roadrunner. The cuckoo family has many terrific species, and we’re lucky to have this one in the U.S. People of a certain age grew up with the Road Runner endlessly evading Wile E. Coyote on Saturday mornings. While I often saw the greater roadrunner simply standing, scanning the surroundings, and waiting for some poor soul to move, once they sprint after prey they are impressive. Like a cheetah chasing a Thompson’s gazelle, they are probably going to catch their prey, no matter the jackrabbit-like moves the target can muster.
Costa’s hummingbird is a gorgeous little hummer in the heat-blast deserts of the Southwest and on into Mexico. I like to use the vocals of this species as a hearing test. Their “song” goes up the scale from 6.6 to 9.3 kHz and then back down like a kid’s whistle you’d get at the fair. It is among the highest-pitched songs in North America, exceeding the high frequencies of cedar waxwing and even blackpoll warbler. Go to All About Birds and see if you can hear it!
One widespread species in those parts and which I never tired of seeing is the vermilion flycatcher. Even the most casual traveler in southern Arizona is going to see these spectacular little flycatchers. Their vocals will remind you of kingbirds or maybe Say’s phoebe. And don’t overlook or misidentify the females. They are lovely in their own, more subtle, way.
A ubiquitous sparrow in the creosote flats, which occurs into our region, is the black-throated sparrow. They are not only beautiful, but their tinkling song is always a joy to hear. If you can’t travel to Organ Pipe, check out the Oolite Interpretive Trail south of Grandview in spring for a good chance to see and hear these birds. They are rare and local in southern Idaho.
While there are many other great birds in Organ Pipe you are not going to see around here, the thrashers may present the most fun. Curve-billed, Bendire’s, LeConte’s, and crissal thrashers are all found in the monument. I love this family — the Mimidae. Our local members include the sage thrasher and gray catbird, and the occasional northern mockingbird.
Curve-billed and crissal thrashers are pretty widespread, but Bendire’s and LeConte’s are harder to find. Plus, they both have particular habitat requirements that are still not fully understood. I had to ask around about where to find these birds. Fortunately, birders are not shy about asking anyone with binoculars what they’ve seen and if they know where species X is. As I’ve written before, I’ve found birders to be very eager to share their knowledge and good fortune in finding species.
At one campground, some people pulled into the adjacent campsite and immediately hung out hummingbird feeders. I realized I had totally blown countless great opportunities over the previous weeks! Of course! Hang out feeders! They saw my binoculars and soon invited me over to watch the feeders and chat. Plus, they had a hard-sided camper, stove, coffee, and large cooler. I ate several meals with them while we watched and talked birds, camping, and deserts.
When I arrived home in early September, my mom said I looked like I’d been in a POW camp — emaciated. Perhaps my camping neighbors were worried about my appearance, and that’s why they fed me repeatedly. I now have an idea for a book on how to lose weight.
In the desert southwest in summer, the birding is over about 10 am. Even before you employ the wise conception of a siesta, you typically have to find something else to do when the temperature rises. For birders, one good idea is to find a pond or wetland to watch. Birds with water at hand stay active longer, not just ducks but other types of birds. But even that wears out after a while. When the birding is done and you’re by yourself, you have to have another hobby. I could have drummed, made jewelry, practiced the flute, wrote, or played crossword puzzles. But my fallback was reading. It was always reading.
I had taken only a few books on my trip, but they were very purposely chosen. My #1 book was Walden by Henry David Thoreau. I read Walden cover to cover at least four times during my trip, and I had already read it multiple times before then. I found Thoreau’s writing to be so connected to the world I was experiencing and could hardly get enough. It’s safe to say I have never read anything with such total immersion.
The other books I read multiple times were A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, and My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir. To this day, I have not read books with such a complete connection to what the authors had written.
I spent 10 days or so in Organ Pipe, and I was into August. Fall semester at the University of Wisconsin started in early September. I had yet to turn north. Decisions about my itinerary were starting to bear down.
You can reach Terry at terryrichbrd@gmail.com.
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