Arms out and Thumbs Up for birds

While I hitchhike commonly during international travels, where it is relatively easy and safe, I have not stuck out my thumb very often in the ABA area. Pressed to do so, usually involved a difficult approach along a rough road my car couldn’t handle. Read the story of the chicken in the white out in an earlier blog. Otherwise I can think of only a handful of instances where I hitched a ride, mostly with other birders that stopped after seeing my thumb stuck out and binoculars hanging around my neck. For example I am much indebted to a lift in Big Bend to the Pine Canyon trail-head and the resulting Fan-tailed Warbler.

In southeast Arizona I tried my luck with the Five-striped Sparrows on my own feet first.

Elegant Trogon, southeast Arizona Photo Stephan Lorenz

The monsoon season arrived with dramatic thunder claps and white lightning cracking across the black night sky. I had been on the road for about two hours since sunset and the weather had gone from ominous to a full-blown thunderstorm. The car’s headlights washed out in sheets of rain whipping across the road. Worst of all, I was driving west on a deserted gravel track, trying to reach the start of Sycamore Canyon and possibly find a campsite. Surprisingly, I came across another car heading east. We slowed to a stop and exchanged a few words with rain pouring in the rolled down windows. Apparently one of the creek crossings ahead was flooded. I thanked for the info and pressed on.

Indeed I reached a crossing where a stream flowed out of the hills right across the gravel track. I parked and explored on foot, standing in knee-deep water with lighting scrawled over distant mountains seemed a bit nonsensical so I took shelter in the car. One of several nights of the trip spent curled in the driver’s seat.

The world was transformed the following morning, sunlight steamed off the hills and the sky was clear. The rushing stream from the night before had shrunk to a trickle, easily passable in my car. Sycamore Canyon is one of many famous birding locations in southeast Arizona, especially after a Fan-tailed Warbler had set up territory there in 1987. I was after something a little less rare. Several miles into the canyon, almost all the way to the Mexican border, Five-striped Sparrows could be found. North of the border this large and uniquely colored sparrow can only be found in a few canyons. The majority of birders seek the species in California Gulch, which is accessible by a rough dirt road. Giving the low clearance of my car I figured a hike might be easier, in addition Sycamore Canyon held lots of birds. Elegant Trogons were plentiful, while Arizona Woodpeckers occur here at unusually low elevations. The first miles were relatively easy, but the terrain became more difficult.

The trail switched back and forth across the deepening stream and I found myself clambering over and passed boulders just to keep going. I found a promising looking slope and climbed up to look and listen for the sparrows, ten minutes and nothing. The actual spot lay another miles or so downstream, but I reached a narrow spot in the canyon, where walls pushed in on the stream as the water rushed wildly through. There seemed to be no easy way around and I gave up.

Sycamore Canyon, Arizona Photo Stephan Lorenz

The Five-striped Sparrows would have to wait another day. I arrived back at my car around noon and another thunderstorm started to roll in from the south. I drove north to camp at Saguaro National Park and made plans for the next day. Sparrows being one of my favorite groups of birds, I didn’t want to leave southeast Arizona without this one. My only other chance was to reach California Gulch, I would have to hike in for the eight or so odd miles, sixteen mile round-trip.

An extremely early start had me driving south well before sunrise. With just enough light I made a quick stop to photograph a posing nighthawk.

Arizona Photo Stephan Lorenz

I arrived with plenty of time to spare at the turn-off towards California Gulch. I could see even from a distance that my car wouldn’t make a hundred yards on the road, water stood in large puddles, rocks stuck out in between potholes. I started hiking. I was making pretty good time, but soon realized that this was going to be a long day, when I heard the sound of a car engine rumbling closer. I soon saw a jeep heading towards me and immediately stuck out my thumb. The two birders from Michigan were impressed by how far I had already walked, but I gratefully accepted their offer for a lift. We had a great morning birding the area, tracking down Northern Beardless Tyrannulet and best of all a singing Five-striped Sparrow. The sparrows sang from the steep slope above and it took a bit of effort to maneuver ourselves into a good place to see one well, but it sat out on a ocotillo giving great views. The slopes here are covered in thick subtropical thorn scrub, the preferred habitat of the sparrows. This late in the summer, August, we decided not to try for the Buff-collared Nightjar, the other famous resident of California Gulch.

California Gulch, Arizona Photo Stephan Lorenz

By noon the temperatures soared and I was glad I didn’t have to trudge back on foot. Without the lift it is doubtful I would have seen the birds as activity had calmed down by mid-morning. Birding on a shoestring requires plenty of luck and the much appreciated help of others.

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