The pursuit of birds takes people to a variety of places. Whether it's on the lush mountainsides of Costa Rica, the Florida Everglades, Oregon's Crater Lake, or even local parks, there are many opportunities to see beautiful birds in beautiful places. There are also those less desirable spots, the garbage dumps and the water treatment facilities, where we chase after rare gulls or elusive waterfowl.
Not that it's a rare bird by any means, but I saw my first Western Bluebird perched on a port-o-potty seat in San Jose, California. Seeing great birds can largely mediate unpleasant circumstances. To a lesser extent, pleasant circumstances can mediate a lack of good birding.
A few weeks ago I set off on a lovely scenic trip up Mt. Lemmon in Tucson, hoping to see some Red Crossbills and maybe even some Owls in the high elevation pines. Mt. Lemmon is a well-known birding site in Arizona, but on this occasion is turned out to be quite the...err hem...lemon. After six or so hours of driving, hiking, and birding, I recorded all of fifteen species for the day, setting a lamentable new record for an all time low on a weekend birding outing. However, this did not detract from the mountain's beauty.
With a fresh layer of crunchy snow, clear skies, and an elevated position above the valley smog, Mt. Lemmon provided some breath-taking views, too great to keep to oneself (thus I made a buddy).
Despite all my complaining, there were some highlights to the trip. I got to see more Yellow-eyed Juncos than I ever had before. It was almost like they had vigilantly driven away all the other birds on the mountain. They'd forage along the road, perch on the guard rails, and shuffle along all of the different trails on Mt. Lemmon, provided they were above four or five thousand feet in elevation.
I spent most of the day's pedestrian exploration on the Willow Spring trail, around seven thousand feet elevation. This site had the most recently reported Crossbills on eBird, and looped nicely into the nearby Rose Canyon Lake. The first birds to break the Yellow-eyed Junco monotony were small in stature but conspicuously noisy and bouncy in the ponderosa pines.
Shame on me; my focus on the Red Crossbills made me forget all about some of the other charming Mt. Lemmon residents, like these Pygmy Nuthatches. Now, if only there were Pygmy Owls around...
While I crunched through the snow, rejoicing in the invention and perpetuation of wool socks, as the frigid water permeated my shoes, the Yellow-eyed Juncos continued to dominate the landscape. On the ground, up in trees...they were everywhere, looking down their noses as I bumbled along the trail.
The Juncos weren't the only birds around, and while the Pygmy Nuthatches disappeared pretty quickly, the larger White-breasted Nuthatches abounded in the mid-day sun. Something about this bird's plumage has always struck me as incomplete. I think it's the white on the sides of its face and head, going into its neck (Nuthatch version of a neck anyway). It feels like there should be some other coloration there two. All the white seems like interim plumage to me, like the bird isn't fully mature yet.
I've never had this sort of feeling about any other fully plumed adult bird, so maybe there's just something about the Nuthatch that bugs me in general.
On the other hand, I love their little red spandex shorts.
At one point along the trail I thought I heard finch-like chatter. Turning to follow the noise, I saw a distant silhouette atop one of the pine trees. It could've been a Crossbill. It could've been something else too. After several hours of searching, this was as close as I would come. At this point the Juncos were really starting to pity me, so their flashiest, most be-jeweled representatives came out to say hello.
It made me feel a little better. This last guy seemed to be the king of the mountain, or at least chief of the Juncos. I sat near the gaudy Junco for a while, but was slowly unnerved by the sensation that someone was watching me, some sort of skulking slinking character. Turns out it was a total Creep.
So, in terms of birds, the Mt. Lemmon trip was a relative bust. It was nice to spend so much time with the Juncos, a specialty species I now appreciate a little more, but when those weekend trips seem to come so few and far between...fifteen species stings. These sorts of dud trips are just as much a part of the birding experience though, and they make those goods days all the sweeter. I guess as long as you see one bird you're birding, and birding is always fun.