Winter Visitors

A couple of random chips suddenly emanate from a nearby fig tree. Could this be the flock we are looking for? My friends and I have been slowly walking this dry arroyo for only a few hundred meters, in search of a specific flock of birds that had been seen the other day by another group of friends. A drab Orange-crowned and a female Black-throated Gray Warbler are the first two birds I see. A Rufous-capped Warbler pauses briefly in the open before diving back into the tangled understory. We hear a bird seemingly mumble to itself, a dark shadow flits out briefly, a Blue Mockingbird exposes itself between two dark tangles in the underbrush…we are definitely not in the north.

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Rufous-capped Warbler – ©Marcel Such

A couple of Nashville Warblers make an appearance, then a handful of Warbling and Cassin’s Vireos, all feeding in the dry tropical deciduous woodland that lines the edge of the arroyo. Many of the trees look gray and leafless, and many columnar cacti grow intermittently between them, a habitat that does not appear north into the United States of America. This contrasts strikingly with the floral growth within the arroyo itself, with tall, fully-leafed figs sinking their tangled roots deep into the rocky bed of the wash in search of water.

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Fig Roots – ©Marcel Such

Soon enough, twenty-some birds have slowly worked their way past us, chattering amongst themselves as they glean insects from the winter foliage. “There’s the Black-cap!” one of us exclaims, quickly pointing out the bird. This federally endangered bird breeds exclusively in the Hill Country of Texas and Oklahoma, wintering here in western Mexico. Having never visited the Hill Country during the summer, this is my first time observing this unique species. This experience is made significantly sweeter knowing that most American birders will never see it here in its wintering habitat, which is also under attack by development, as are its summer breeding areas.

Finally, the prize bird shows itself…looking quite similar to a normal Warbling Vireo except bright gold and yellow all over, a Golden Vireo. An endemic to the Pacific slope of Mexico, during the winter it is almost exclusively found much further south, so we are extremely fortunate that this particular individual opted to spend the winter in this winter flock in Arroyo Aduana. Despite keeping itself buried deep and low within the brush, I somehow manage to get my focus to cooperate just long enough to snap off a couple of poor quality shots of a high quality bird.

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Golden Vireo – ©Marcel Such

Like us, these birds are winter visitors, living in this land for only a period of time before returning for other lands and habitats. This is just a glimpse into the time I recently spent traveling and birding in Sonora, México. There are far too many other wonderful moments and experiences to capture with words, so look here for a small photo gallery to be posted early tomorrow!

 

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Sonoran Adventure – Part 1

Aventuras en Sonora, Primera Parte

Generally, when I think of a Christmas Bird Count (CBC), I think of a cold, snowy day spent scouring obscure suburban neighborhoods in search of backyard feeders and the host of finches, sparrows, and the like that are to be found with them. This year’s round of CBCs is different.

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The vista above Arroyo Santa Barbara

We have only been on the trail for a couple of hours since I rolled out of my hammock into the chilly predawn air of the Reserva Monte Mojino in southern Sonora, México. My companions, Raymond van Buskirk, Amanda Powell, and local guide Felix Garcia, and I scramble down the loose single track into a steep-walled riparian canyon downstream from the remote village of Santa Barbara where we stayed the night before. Already, the heat is quite oppressive to me, but the incredible song of the Brown-backed Solitaire echoes throughout the canyon, leading us onward. (I encourage you to listen to some recordings of their song, found here!)

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Amanda, Raymond, and Felix sorting through and counting flocks of wintering sparrows and warblers

The avian life of the area is quite astounding, with diversity ranging from birds familiar and common in the US, like Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Yellow-rumped Warbler, to such exotics as the Lilac-crowned Parrot and Spotted Wren, both species endemic to Mexico. We strain our ears, hoping for the screeches of the rare Military Macaw, the cliffs here being the northernmost extent of their range. After several false alarms elicited by the frequent ringing of cowbell-toting free-range cattle in the arroyo, we were rewarded by the faint but distinctive crawww of two distant macaws.

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Spotted Wren, one of several Mexican endemics we saw today

Staring through the patchily lit understory, we pick out the calls and later sight such elusive birds as Blue Mockingbirds, Crescent-chested and Rufous-capped Warblers, Rufous-crowned Ground-Sparrow, Elegant Trogons, and many others. Before we know it, the sun is rapidly disappearing behind the ridge of the arroyo, and we are forced to return to camp, meeting up and comparing notes with the other half of our group, who had spent their day climbing on the ridge high above the canyon.

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Black-throated Gray Warbler, a common breeder in the Piñon-Juniper woodland of Colorado

We eat our dinner of tacos around a small campfire, passing an old soda bottle of a fiery hand-crafted tequila, known locally as lechugía, that was gifted to us by a sociable and friendly neighbor. Despite the intense itching of black fly bites, I retire to my hammock and drift to sleep with the distant whinnying calls of Whiskered Screech-Owls and woops of a Mottled Owl in my ears, full of anticipation for the birds tomorrow will bring.

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Milky Way above our camp in Santa Barbara

eBird Checklist from Arroyo Santa Barbara

Fleeing the Cold (soon)

Three exams done, two to go. As soon as I achieve blessed freedom tomorrow morning, I will be fleeing the cold, snowy reaches of the Gunnison Basin in a desperate search for warmth and birds. After meeting up with some dear friends and birding badasses in Albuquerque, we will be making the long haul to southern Sonora, Mexico, for a series of Christmas Bird Counts and other adventurous birding chenanigans. Stay tuned for my return to the states sometime around Christmas, you will not want to miss our story!

However, I have news to keep you occupied until that time! If you are on the social medias, head on over to Facebook to reward my procrastination by liking my new page, The Cursorial Birder! For your efforts, you will be rewarded with notices of new blog posts funneled straight into your feed, and additionally all the nuggets of random birding and running awesomeness that are just a bit too small to deserve their own dedicated blog posts.

Thanks for your readership, and Merry Christmas!

Marcel

Desert R&R

The desert has always been my retreat. Some of my earliest and fondest memories involve birding trips to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, six year old me tenderly skirting to avoid the innumerable species of giant spiky plants. I now find myself living in another, very different desert, the high sagebrush desert of the Gunnison Basin. While lacking in large cacti or quite the same amazing avian diversity, whenever the moment presents itself, I venture outside in search of some customary recovery and relaxation from the stresses of school.

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Weekend lead climbing at Hartman Rocks, near Gunnison

As the semester has progressed, and the stress of final projects and exams looms, these weekend outings have become all the more important to me. Even so, the R&R has turned largely from “recovery and relaxation” to “running and running.” The nearby canyon country of Utah provides yet another amazing avenue for weekend adventuring. One weekend found me racing a very technical half marathon in Moab, the course taking me so far out of my comfort zone and experience level as a track athlete that I was left bleeding and shaking at the finish line.

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Moab Marathon Finish Line Festivities

About three days after swearing off running for the season, I found myself training for yet another race. In just a handful of days, I would be competing in the Dead Horse Ultra 50k. This race would take place on a completely different trail system in Moab, the course thankfully featuring much less severe levels of technicality. Halfway through the 31 miles of spectacularly scenic singletrack and slickrock trails, I believe I have finally found something I was meant to do.

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Teammate Gordon Gianinny and I looking smooth through mile 7 of 31 – photo by Renée Haip

At mile 18, my teammate Gordon finds another gear that I did not know existed, and soon disappears down the twisting and meandering trail, leaving me to my own thoughts and pain. Having only downed a couple of energy gels and a handful of oreo cookies in the previous miles, I am finally starting to feel the toll of the miles on my legs…skipping through the slickrock now feels much more arduous and trecherous than it did earlier. This feeling of total fatigue continues to increase with every step, and by the time I roll through what I imagine must be about 26.2 miles, I know that if I stop I will not be able to get my stiff legs moving again. So I keep putting one foot in front of the other, knowing with a dead certainty that each step brings me closer to home. My R&R may not be what you would normally imagine it to be, but it brings life to my soul, and it is views and memories like this that I will be dreaming of through the upcoming trials of the semester.

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Photo by Renée Haip