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Finding luck in an Arizona canyon

In 2000, David Sibley came out with The Sibley Guide to Birds, a much-anticipated bird guide which instantly found its way into every aficionado's library. This world renowned bird expert not only authored the entire text, but illustrated every depiction found therein. It's a must-have for North American birders.

The volume contains information on 810 species found in the U.S. and Canada. Sibley states in his introduction, "I have included species and identifiable populations that occur regularly within this area, including most rare but regular visitors." What's not in Sibley's book is a bird called the crescent-chested warbler (Parula superciliosa).

Over the Thanksgiving holiday a company trip was planned to Arizona. With a couple days in that area, I planned on visiting a Tucson acquaintance and, of course, checking out the local bird scene. One look on the Internet a few days prior to departure brought a heightened anticipation. There were three birds being reported in Madera Canyon that I had never seen including a crescent-chested warbler. All three were Mexican species that had ventured into southeast Arizona. And I had an outside chance of spotting at least one.

Tucson residents are fully acquainted with Madera Canyon. It's a popular getaway on the north side of the Santa Rita Mountains with many hiking trails and picnicking areas an easy hour or so south of the city. It also happens to be one of the premiere birding locations in America, with an eye-popping number of rarities reported there over the years.

Until a week prior I had never even heard of a crescent-chested warbler, but shortly after sunrise on Thanksgiving Day there I was walking up the trail in hopeful pursuit of this or any other new bird. Two miles and an hour later, I stood at the marked location where most of the sightings of the sought-after bird had taken place. Under a can was a piece of paper with a chronology describing dates, times and locations of sightings. The bird had been seen the day before. But this time it wasn't to be. Dead silence and not a bird stirring anywhere.

After lingering for several minutes, I turned and ventured higher up the trail. Within a quarter mile the activity picked up greatly. American robins, cedar waxwings, woodpeckers, ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-eyed juncos - easily over 100 birds - were noisily going about their business of feeding and flitting about. As I stood and carefully picked through the birds with binoculars, a yellow flash caught my eye. Ah, a beautiful Townsend's warbler. Not a rarity but a cool bird nonetheless, and one rarely seen in North Dakota. Then the improbable happened. Along with the Townsend's warbler another yellow flash darted near. One glance and it was apparent - crescent-chested warbler.

The bird was striking. Blue-gray back and head, bright yellow throat, white belly with a muted chartreuse patch on its upper back. What really stood out was a rather bold white stripe running along the side of its head just above the eye. The chestnut crescent across the midsection for which the bird is named, was almost entirely missing, making this a likely young-of-the-year male or female.

I had little knowledge as to the scarcity of this bird, although the number of birders I ran into coming up the trail some two hours later should have been a clue. "Did you see the warbler? Where was it? How long ago did you see it?" First documented in the U.S. in Arizona's Huachuca Mountains in 1983, this diminutive species was again generating quite a stir.

Rick Wright is managing director of WINGS, a worldwide bird tour company and was until recently editor of Winging It, the American Birding Association's newsletter. He is the one who set the process in motion by posting the sighting on his blog and sending an email alert to ABA members. He said, "The 'buzz' was immense, and it should have been, too, for a bird of that rarity. The Thanksgiving bird was the 8th for Arizona which makes it one of the rarest birds ever seen (north of Mexico)."

Given the thousands of acres of forest and many miles of trails, I now sit back and wonder just how fortunate I was that day. Mark Stevenson, Arizona Region Co-editor of North American Birds magazine said, "It's an adventure to search for one small bird that is darting around in one big canyon in a scenic desert mountain range."

If there are lessons to be learned here it is this: The 'connectedness' of this modern age makes chasing a rare bird considerably easier than in years past. But just knowing it's there is one thing, finding it is quite another. Sometimes in the end, only pure, blind luck will do.