Big Day Arizona
As we pulled up to the Rustler Park Campground parking lot in the Coronado National Forest a light rain began to fall. Graham and I turned to each other upon arrival and with the same quizzical tone wondered, “Why is there someone else up here?” The lights of another car illuminated the area and once we parked a man approached us. There was a knock on my window as his flashlight blinded me. I began the conversation puzzled and slightly alarmed, “Hey…how you doing?” He announced himself as Portal’s lieutenant police officer and he asked to see our identification. As I got out of the car to retrieve my id I noticed another ten or so officers standing behind the car. When he asked what we were doing there at this hour and I replied “Birding” we received an expected response: “Birding? It’s midnight”.
This was hardly the way I imagined our Big Day would begin, but I suppose being searched to see if we were drug traffickers was an appropriate way to start our 24-hour birding adventure in the Chiricahua Mountains of Southeast Arizona. After trying to explain what a Big Day was (a whole day of non-stop birding in an attempt to see as many species as possible during that time) the officer hesitantly departed.
We didn’t have much time to think about this interaction, because our day was about to begin.
I gave Graham the countdown as my phone read, 11:59:45, 15 seconds, 10 seconds, 5 seconds, and Go. We immediately cupped our hands to our ears. There were three night birds we desperately needed at high elevation, and each was just as hard as next. A “sweep” of these three species would be unlikely to say the least. We did have one thing going for us though. For the past two months we had been interning at the Southwest Research Station just up the mountain from Portal. For those two months we had done almost nothing but bird. We knew specifically, sometimes down to a certain tree, where we could find each bird on our target list.
So as the clock struck midnight we were standing at the bathroom at Rustler Park listening for the rarest owl in the Chiricahuas, the Northern Saw-whet Owl. Graham and I used double playback, meaning I played the bird’s call and he would respond as a second bird; this strategy usually has a higher success rate of eliciting a call. To our delight we heard the tooting call of the owl echoing off the canyons. On a normal day we would want to see this bird, but today was far from normal. We were solely after numbers, and in the birding world an aural identification is sufficient. Once we got the Saw-whet we headed up the trail to the Forest Service cabins and began playing the Flammulated Owl. Our recordings weren’t loud enough, so I had to do it the old fashioned way and emulate the call myself. Based on my experiences in these mountains this particular owl is the most sought-after bird because it is the hardest to find. During the summer internship I received numerous emails from fellow birders asking where to spot it. But at the moment those other birders were certainly not our problem—getting this owl to respond was!
There is no feeling quite like standing in bitter silence while birding an isolated peak with your best friend. There is a peace and a certain amount of freedom, yet a feeling of anxiousness as you stand utterly still hoping to hear a faint hoot coming from the nearby conifer hillside. At 20 minutes past midnight we heard exactly that. Now we had two of our birds, but there was still one more to go. We drove out of Rustler and down the road a little ways to listen for the Spotted Owl, a species known across the country as the symbol of U.S. endangered species conservation. Its ongoing battle with loggers in the Pacific Northwest is a widely discussed topic among conservationists and birders. We were ecstatic when our bird just hooted down the road. The three hardest owls had all fallen into place just 45 minutes into our day!
We raced down the mountain for the other nocturnal birds that awaited us at lower elevations. On our way down we flushed an unexpected Common Poorwill; number four! The rest of our night was unbelievably productive. We heard every bird we had hoped for and it was still only the first night in our 24 hours of birding. The Whiskered Screech-Owl, Western Screech-Owl, Mexican Whip-poor-will, and Elf Owl all cooperated and right away we were on fire.
We had planned to spend the early part of our morning in the desert, as a good majority of our target species would be found here. To our great surprise the dawn chorus began at 2:30 AM. Cassin’s Sparrow was the bird that first broke the silence and a group of mockingbirds was not far behind. Then Lesser Nighthawk began to call from the mesquite brush along Highway 80. We arrived at Willow Tank, one of our only water bird stops right before dawn. The Sora we had scouted here whinnied right on time and a few minutes later we had first light. On any big day this is a much-anticipated time. Many species are in full song and this is when you get most of your checkmarks for the day. Our good luck from the night continued into the morning. The ever elusive Bendire’s Thrasher sang for us along Sulphur Canyon Road (a species we were very worried about), a Mallard flew over the road in search of a pond to rest on, Scaled and Gambel’s Quail began to call, three Horned Larks flew over, several species of swallow took to the air hunting those pesky mosquitos, Bewick’s Wrens, gnatcatchers, Lucy’s Warblers, Crissal Thrashers, Blue Grosbeaks, Yellow-breasted Chats, Botteri’s Sparrows, meadowlarks, and many more all put in appearances in the early hours. Within a couple of hours we had completely cleaned up on expected desert birds; a position we hadn’t expected to be in so early in the day.
We were feeling extremely confident as we headed into the mountains, an area we knew like the back of our hands from our summer field work. Our first stop was at Stewart Campground where our reliable Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher was just that. Then the biggest surprise of the day–a flyover White-eared Hummingbird giving its distinctive tik-tik call. We continued to knock out mid-elevation species: Montezuma Quail were singing at Cave Creek Ranch, Band-tailed Pigeons were noisily flying about, hummingbirds were all over (we ended with 8 species for the day), our Elegant Trogon was in his nest hole as we had hoped, Arizona Woodpeckers chattered away at Sunny Flat, our three warblers at this elevation were easy to pick out, and for that matter so was everything else. We hadn’t missed a bird yet and that trend would continue for quite a while.
At this point, it was high-elevation that would make or break us. We headed up to Rustler Park around 10:00AM after checking off the Buff-breasted Flycatcher. I hadn’t allotted a ton of time up there, as I knew this area best and was confident we could get the species we needed in a shorter amount of time, but I was still worried. We had 20 minutes at Rustler Park, so once we parked the car we were focused and ready. An Olive Warbler sang as we got out of the car, our two nuthatches called right away, Steller’s Jays and Western Tanagers were all around, and lucky for us a single Mexican Chickadee gave a quick call. We hadn’t gotten all of our targets, but I had planned for us to return after a shorebird stop 50 miles away in Willcox, a stop we hoped would give us an extra ten or so species. A quick and efficient trip to Willcox was needed, and so we raced down the mountain and onto highway 186. Upon arrival we could tell it was a good shorebird day. White-faced Ibis, Northern Shoveler, Ring-necked Duck, Killdeer, Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, both yellowlegs, Long-billed Curlew, Baird’s, Western, and Least Sandpipers, Wilson’s Phalarope, Black Tern, and Ring-billed Gull were all on the lake. What really helped us though was the additional passerines around the lake including Vermilion Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Lazuli Bunting, Common Yellowthroat, and then a fortunate flyover Peregrine Falcon.
We were returning to the mountains when a friend told me that the current Arizona Big Day July record was 131 birds. With that news we realized we were in the process of doing something more special than just a fun day of birding. We had just gotten our 145th bird. The record was ours, but we wanted to do more than just better; we wanted to put it out of reach.
Back up top our incredibly lucky day continued. We stopped at my favorite spot in the Chiricahuas and listened for half and hour to try and clean up high-elevation species. We weren’t disappointed. In that time we got Red-faced Warbler, Greater Pewee, Black-chinned Sparrow, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Common Raven, Hermit Warbler, and to our great surprise a Townsend’s Solitaire (a species never confirmed breeding in these mountains). It was at this point we ran into trouble. Once we returned to the car we discovered we had a flat tire, and not just any flat, there was barely any tire left. Due to several complications the tire change took about 45 minutes and cost us, we estimated, two species. But we weren’t going to let that keep us from completing the day. Our next stop was the George Walker House in Paradise in search of the Juniper Titmouse, along with Rufous and Calliope Hummingbirds. Following the day’s theme all three were there, putting us right back on track. On our way back to the desert an Indigo Bunting flew past the car, which ended our daytime birding. Back in the foothills there was only one bird left to get, the Common Nighthawk. We tried multiple locations, but could not pin down this species. As we were packing up our car and checking our list we heard the unmistakable “peent” of our bird to our left. We were thrilled, we high-fived and started laughing! With that we’d completed the full species list before the 24 hours were even up. What a day!
We set out the previous night at 11 pm for Rustler Park hoping for the lofty goal of 120 species. 161 species later we were on top of the world. Four of those species were seen in New Mexico only so they do not go towards our Arizona total, but we will take 157 any day. We returned home to a sea of cheers and congratulations. That night in our room we got to reflect on the day that was. It was Graham’s first taste of Big Day action and even though it wasn’t my first experience the joy and excitement felt like it was.
I know that record will be sought after in the years to come. Several people have told me they are going after it soon, and I hope they do get it. The great thing about records is they are meant to be broken. The spirit of the sport and advancement of my passion only gets furthered by the goals of peers that are oh so similar to mine. The beauty of birds coupled with the stress and thrill of competition makes for an outstandingly special day. That’s exactly what Big Day Arizona was for us.