Arizona: chasing a robin and a warbler

There are times when one shouldn’t go birding and this was one of them, but the birds prevailed and I headed out anyway. I had been laid low by a pretty nasty flu, strong fever for two days, vegetating in bed and nothing but tomato soup and jello to eat. I coughed and slept and coughed some more. When I could hold my eyelids open for longer than five second I figured I was well enough to go chase some birds. Finding myself in southern California with intentions to head back to Texas, the rarities in southeast Arizona beckoned, and with every passing day I was sweating they would disappear. Without health insurance and needing money for gas (birdsonashoestring!) I skipped the doctor and started driving west one early afternoon. I made it barely into central Arizona, about six hours, before I had to find a room to keep from passing out.

The next morning I felt somewhat better and continued to my first stop, Catalina State Park, where a Rufous-backed Robin was spending the winter. When I arrived I felt pretty dizzy, but managed to drag myself from the car across the parking lot to the thickets the bird preferred. Lynn Barber was there and she helpfully pointed out the bird. It perched cooperatively just off the ground and I was able to take some photos. I couldn’t remember much later, but fortunately had picture to proof to myself that I had actually seen the bird. Rufous-backed Robins are rare, but annual visitors to southern Arizona, especially during the winter months. A beautiful thrush usually at home in the highlands of Mexico further south.

Rufous-backed Robin, Arizona Photo Stephan Lorenz

Success and still able to keep upright I drove towards my next target, Madera Canyon. A Crescent-chested Warbler, a true rarity from Mexico’s mountains was wintering in the high elevation forest. The bird preferred an area about 1.5 miles up the Baldy Trail. When I arrived it was late in the afternoon and I had barely enough energy to set up the tent. Yes, I figured to cure the serious cold, some mountain winter camping was in order. Amazingly I was so tired I slept well.

The next morning, without any real energy, I joined the parade of birders struggling up the trail, steep in some places. I reached the spot within an hour and just sat down. I couldn’t stand up anymore, the bird would have to come to me. Other people were looking, I sat and tried to keep an eye on the trees. Suddenly the alarm was sounded, somebody has spotted the warbler a little bit higher on the trail. I struggled through the switchbacks, panting, sweating, exhausted. As if in a feverish dream I scanned for the bird. There it was in the pine, high up, poorly seen, I tried not to pass out. Then on the ground for a moment, its white eye brow clearly visible and a flash of the rufous crescent, just a second. The warbler soon disappeared among the juncos and trees. I never got a photo to prove that I saw it, but when the warbler landed on the ground the fog just lifted, for a moment I was without fever, clear and cool, admiring the little bird, so much like a parula and yet decidedly different. One of the toughest wood-warblers to see in the ABA area and all I had to do was retrace my steps, making it back to the car without rolling down the path unconscious. I did.

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