Confessions of a traveling rarity chaser
The count was 0- 2; I was deep in the hole.
I had just swung wildly at the second pitch and come up empty. I stepped out of the batter's box, adjusted my helmet and batting glove, dug into my stance and stared down the pitcher. At least that's what it felt like last week in southeast Arizona where I went looking for a life bird.
A rare Eurasian bird showed up in southern Arizona at the tail end of last month, that state's second record ever of white wagtail. It's an infrequent vagrant that shows up willy-nilly across North America. I had a trip to Arizona on my schedule; would this bird stay long enough for me to chase it? Nope. By the time I left Fargo it was awol.
Still, any time a birder finds himself in Arizona there are always possibilities and continuing reports from the Huachuca Mountains caught my attention. From the steep canyons among the high elevations south of Fort. Huachuca, persistent news of tufted flycatchers (Mitrephanes phaeocercus) made for a ripe target. This is a Mexican/Central American species that very rarely appears in the American southwest with only a tiny handful of records from Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Of course, this would be a lifer for me. The chase was on.
We landed in Scottsdale around noon. Four hours later I was driving up Carr Canyon with its wicked, windy, rock-filled roads. The bird had been reliably seen behind "campsite #9" in a Coronado National Forest campground according to what I had read.
The campground turned out to be nearly empty, that is, with the exception of one large group of picnickers parked in—you guessed it—campsite No. 9. Yup, perhaps a dozen weekenders had seen fit to loudly cavort and carry on at ground zero for one of the rarest birds in the U. S. just as I was searching for it. What are the odds?
After carefully canvassing the immediate area as best I could for over an hour, I concluded this particular effort would not bear fruit. Upon descending the mountain, cell phone service returned and with it, more bad news: the bird in question had been sought the day before by a group of capable birders but had not been found in over six hours of looking. This one, apparently, had left also.
Retreating to the hotel that evening, it was evident I had not been thorough with my homework and felt somewhat defeated. The recording I had used to learn the bird's call featured a prominent robin-like sound I assumed was the tufted flycatcher. After listening more carefully I realized it was indeed a robin, while the flycatcher's burry, two-syllable, doubled call, "curry, curry," was softly and indiscreetly heard in the background. I had been listening for the wrong bird. Two strikes indeed.
But amazing luck provided a flicker of hope as another( italics) tufted flycatcher had been seen and heard in the adjacent Ramsey Canyon (a pair had nested here last summer marking the first American nesting record of this species). Instead of simply driving to it, however, this one would require a strenuous trail hike. I didn't care, this was a rare bird after all.
I began walking up early the next morning. 'Keep your eyes on the prize,' I told myself, continuously distracted by other birds and their songs along the way. I wasn't entirely certain of where the rarity had been located the day before; something like 4/10ths mile past a trail junction.
An hour later I passed the fork in the trail and began listening intently in the tall thick pines, firs, and oak trees. Thirty minutes elapsed before I was certain I had gone the required distance. I turned around and began the descent, this time even more methodically. Then I heard it: "curry curry." The bird was here somewhere. Over the next 35 minutes the flycatcher vocalized maybe five times, shifting locations but staying in cover.
Just then two hikers appeared on the trail also eagerly seeking the rare bird. I relayed how I had been hearing it and joined them in the search. Immediately the bird called again, this time in a clearing. There it was. The tiny little cinnamon colored bird with the dunce cap-like crest that we had targeted, sat plainly in the open for a blessed few seconds.
That precious moment was the culmination of a lot of effort and study. Finally getting to lay eyes upon one of the rarer birds in the country is astonishingly satisfying on every level, particularly after swinging and missing twice. It wasn't easy—not a hanging curveball—but a treasured home run by any measure.