Going home for the holidays can be quite challenging for some. For me, it doesn’t happen often enough, so I was thrilled when family invited us to spend Thanksgiving with them in California, my home state. Not only would it be a joy to catch up with loved ones, but there was the additional excitement of birding in a different location and the possibility of adding new birds to my life list.
I’m totally smitten with owls. I love everything about them: their piercing yellow eyes; those fiercely strong talons that can take down large prey; their soft, bark-colored feathers that camouflage them perfectly, insulate them against the cold and help them fly very quietly in pursuit of prey.
We found ourselves nearly alone in the Quail Loop section of Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood, Arizona recently, the heat, rain and humidity no doubt leaving most campers seeking cooler climes. Gone were the wintering ducks we saw when we visited the park in January, but there were still plenty of other birds around to feed my obsession.
When my birding buddies, Susan and Brian, came up with the idea of a four-day, 1,400+ mile birding odyssey across Arizona, targeting nine VSBs (Very Special Birds), I didn’t bat an eye. I didn’t even hesitate. Did we get our birds, you ask? Read on to find out….
The Circle of Life
Life’s circle is defined as the series of stages through which a living thing passes from the beginning of its life until its death and in my ‘hood, I’ve seen it all. The drama of courtship and territorial squabbles. The industrious nest-building and the miracle of new life. The awkwardness of young fledglings, the sorrow of death. It’s one thing to see birds in these various stages; it is quite another to watch a specific bird and witness its circle of life first hand. Take my resident Great Horned Owls, for instance….
I’ve written about the Chiricahua Mountains before, about how this mountain range that rises suddenly out of the southeast Arizona desert like an island and is, in fact, the largest of what are known as Sky Islands. I’ve talked about the birds, animals and plants that thrive nowhere else in the U.S. But with each visit to this unique area, I see, hear, feel something new that adds to my love of the place. It’s like hanging another jeweled charm from a favorite bracelet that holds cherished memories of special trips.
I am not an avid birder. I’m a rabid birder. My deep dive into serious birding last year propelled me into the orbit of two dedicated and knowledgeable birders, who think nothing of driving halfway across the state of Arizona in pursuit of an uncommon bird.
Even with its mild winters, the Phoenix area can get a little dreary as the months drag on while waiting for spring. Throw in a little cold snap, courtesy of Mother Nature, and the onset of a winter chest cold that kept me house-bound for over a week and I’ve got a bad case of the Winter Blues. However, a clear day and a little birding can work miracles…
Ever since Hollywood began producing moving pictures, the industry has promoted a stereotype of the Villain: he’s the one dressed in black, wearing a black hat, riding a black horse. In the avian world, black birds often get saddled with the same bad rap.
Arizona’s species list of around 550 birds is the highest of any state without an ocean coastline. The total is aided by quite a few rare vagrants that occasionally cross the border from Mexico, such as Flame-colored Tanager and Streak-backed Oriole. Come along with me as I introduce you to just a few of the beautiful birds – some of them rare that have found their way to my little patch.