January — the light level is so low on the coast here that just seeing movement in the brush, in fields, or on the beach is difficult. It’s like looking at a world lit by a 40-Watt bulb. Identifying birds now depends largely on sounds and JIZZ, the notion of ‘General Impression, Size and Shape’ pilots used to identify enemy aircraft in WW2. Even so by January 4th, I’m up to 70 birds for the year and that’s not too bad considering the conditions.
Cactus Wren, Tucson
I’m feeling slightly fanatical, braving a downpour to look for a reported Greater Scaup and when that fails, trudging up to the Golf Course to search for Greater White-Fronted geese, but I get no joy there either. I swing back later and there they are — the White-fronted and half dozen Snow Geese too casually fertilizing the greens. A few days later, on a trip to the mainland, I see dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Bald Eagles. Near the Vancouver landfill, they sit in bunches adorning the trees like heavy fruit. As I drive towards the city, I witness the mating display of the eagles, a pair freefalling towards the earth with their talons locked. I’ve heard of this but never before seen the spectacle – marvelous.
In a week or so, I’ll be heading to Arizona for the Wings Over Willcox Festival. There’s bound be sunlight down south, which there was, but not immediately.
A freak rainstorm greeted my arrival in Arizona. Shortly after I picked up my car at the Phoenix airport, the downpour hit hard — a gift, perhaps, to help me feel more at home. I cursed the rain for a few hundred miles, which seemed to have the desired effect because the roads were dry by the time I got to Tucson. Dry but not warm — I needed the jacket I had brought long on the off chance I might need it. As it turned out, this turned out to be often.
Sandhill Cranes are the big draw in Willcox. Thousands of the big birds winter in the area, feeding out on the vast harvested grain fields of Cochise County. Southeast Arizona has lots of other birds too – tons of them. I overnight in Tucson and there is no time, as they say, like the present. Just before sundown I pick up a few birds in a small park in the hills north of town, including a Cactus Wren, Gambel’s Quail, a Black-throated Sparrow, a Gila Woodpecker — sweet!
But I’m not in Willcox yet. I leave Tucson early the next morning and am driving up the Madera Canyon Road. The air is chill and the birds are just starting to move about, a Raven watches me park the car from the upper branches of a ponderosa pine. I need the Chihuahuan Raven, which this guy is not. He hunkers down waiting for the sun, or tourists with sandwiches, or both. I take a short hike along one of the trails. The early sunlight frosts grass and sage and makes it glow. A Junco pipes from a patch of brush, a ‘first up’, ‘I’m still groggy from a rough night’ sound. Soon others join in and gradually the chorus becomes cheerier. Then, suddenly with the first warm rays of the sun, they move. One after another, like objects produced from a magician’s sleeve, they fly out of their cover, staging up as a noisy flock in a juniper and then dart out in all directions to look for food. When they’ve gone, a Bridled Titmouse appears, a very pretty little bird and the first one of these guys I’ve ever seen.
My next stop is the feeding station at the Santa Rita Inn. Other birders are there before me, already in position, occupying benches to watch as birds arrive. Soon bunches of Siskins are hanging on feeders, forming hanging displays that remind me of Tibetan wind chimes. A half dozen or so Bridled Titmouse also hit the seed trays. A Hepatic Tanager appears, so fire-bright in that morning sun that it seems artificial. It lights up the shadows near it — seriously. The Tanager is another life bird for me. Yet another ‘Lifer’ appears — a Magnificent Hummingbird, appearing almost twice the size of the Broad-billed Hummer sipping from a feeder close to the spectator gallery. He cruises in to feed and then departs to perch in a nearby pine.
I leave the Inn and drive higher looking for more birds but I also need to get to Willcox to register for the Festival and I’ve got a drive ahead of me. Besides the birds on the sagebrush flats below the mountains are waking up too. Enroute to the highway, I get more life birds, notable the Phainopepla — beautiful, crested, silky black — a bird I’ve long hoped to meet. A bemused Sherriff’s Deputy stops to tell me to pull my car all the way off the road, “not part way”, and then moves off. I count a few more birds on the flats and then drive through some beautiful, rocky terrain to Willcox.
Willcox reminds me of Vanderhoof, a town in north-central B.C. where I lived and worked for any years. Like many small towns, its population seems to be declining and the small shops and other businesses that once supported the town in the pre-big box store and online shopping age tend to be empty. So far, it’s not a warm January here and at 4500 or so feet above sea level, the nights are consistently freezing. Not that there will be much reason to be out of doors at night in Willcox — that’s pretty obvious. There aren’t many places to eat either. Oh, well, that’s birding for you.
I hadn’t known that Willcox was in wine country, with some wineries very close to town. There’s even a tasting bar and reception. I discover this by accident when the snacks are mostly gone. The wine is good though. It’s nice to see this industry here. Willcox used to be a hub for cattle shipments and I’m sure it was a wild, old town in its heyday but not anymore. Right now, at 8 o’clock at night, eating a protein bar, I get the feeling Willcox would be a ghost town except for the fact that most of the ghosts had long ago departed. Just kidding, Willcox.
The Festival headquarters are in the community center. Several people man the registration desk but I’m invisible and the desk folks suddenly abandon their station without acknowledging me. Apparently, a bus is leaving with a tour, or two busses with two tours. In any case, a herd of birders (or flock?) jam an egress, amidst confusion calling, apparently, for the old Willcox skill of herding cattle. When that kerfuffle dies down, I’m greeted warmly. A half hour later, I’m registered and a volunteer has sent me away with a bag full of literature, some of which is useful. I get a badge but I have to leave it at the desk. I don’t know why.
My impression is that something unforeseen has come up. I later learn the confusion might be a product of a change in leadership and direction at a critical time. I also learn some local politician has linked the Festival to the Wild Turkey recovery people, which leads they tell me to the auctioning off of handguns at a birding festival banquet. That’s a new one for me. As a former hunter (all those years in the north), I’m all in favor of cooperating with hunter groups who promote conservation. I think Ducks Unlimited has saved much wetland habitat and birders owe them a huge debt of gratitude and, I trust, the Turkey people are of the same ilk. I hope so anyway. Still, people from such diverse backgrounds and interests, as birders and bird hunters are, need time to get to know one another. Birders don’t generally expect to be bidding on pistols at their banquets. I’m not sure what the long-term effect of this on the future of the money-generating Festival will be, but I’d worry I owned a local business.
On another note — Rex Allen was a native of Willcox, which was something I didn’t know. I was a big fan of the singing cowboy when I was a kid and I remember fondly his mellifluous voiceovers on the Disney documentaries I loved back then. Unfortunately, I could never seem to get to the Rex Allen Museum when it was open and I wasn’t birding. Willcox is kind of like that. There are birders in town who are out all day but many places are closed in the evening. It’s admirable, I guess, not to worry about lost business but, still, I would have liked to have gone to that flipping museum. The Marty Robbins Museum was also closed. Too bad, I like Marty too.