GETTING THE BIRD ON THE ARIZONA TRAIL
Words & Photos by Taylor Bell
So, there's this one bird called the elegant trogon.
You might call it the holy grail for birdwatchers in this country. It's a beautiful, exotic-looking bird, and it's extremely rare in the U.S. In fact, it's so rare that less than 100 pairs of elegant trogons nest here every year—and each of those pairs only nest in a few areas of southeast Arizona. What's more, is that these already low numbers appear to be dwindling. People lose their minds trying to see this bird. They make whole trips out of it. They even go so far as breaking birding's most sacred rule and try to lure it out with playback from an app. There are all these high stakes surrounding the elegant trogon. Conservation debates. The ethics of posting a sighting location online. Their vulnerability to climate change. And so, given all this, you can probably imagine that I'm dying to see one.
Why? I don't really know. Birding is such a strange hobby. I just turned thirty this year, and so maybe I'm just fully resigned to only doing stuff that old people do now. I did spend a day once comparing healthcare plans. I'm not opposed to eating at Luby's now and then. Suddenly the speed limit seems a bit high. Or maybe I like birds for the same reason that I always loved poetry, especially how poets are so good at naming things. They always seem to know the name of the impressive tree they're looking at. Or the etymology behind a word like 'oxymoron.' But you know, I never even read Keats' Ode to a Nightingale. Or Poe's Raven. Once on St. Patrick's Day in Spain, I was drinking beer in a park, and I witnessed an old man walk up to a duck that was sitting in the grass by the river. I watched as he just bent down and picked it up, no second thoughts, gave it a couple of pats on the head, and threw it in the water. Then he just walked away as it swam around. Neither of them seemed bothered by that at all. I craved that relationship with nature.
Do y'all remember all that free time we had at the beginning of covid? How briefly proactive we were in cultivating our hobbies? Well, I guess that formed most of it. I started looking for something to do in the mornings while I drank more coffee. I tried to read less news. And that's pretty much how I came to eBird. A website that shows you all of the species that other birders around you are logging. I saw that Steve and Sue down the road were on an absolute tear—logging sightings of almost 20 different species a week on every side of me. There was a maelstrom of hairy woodpeckers, northern flickers, white-breasted nuthatches, and dark-eyed juncos coming at me from every angle. And all this time, I'd just been sitting here like an idiot. I had no idea there was this whole drama playing out there, right in the backyard, waiting to have names be put to faces. I couldn't believe I'd never known about any of it. I put out a feeder. I watched the cowbirds bully it; the pine siskins swarm it, the squirrels stare longingly at it. And then this feeling of competition began to germinate within me. I felt that it was my intrinsic duty to dethrone Steve and Sue of their thorny, plumed crown. A dear friend saw this and gifted me a monocular (half of a binocular) with a look of concern. I started taking it on camping trips, and that was pretty much that.
All of this culminated in the bizarre work that I was lucky enough to do in partnership with the Arizona Trail Association and Tucson Audubon Society this spring. Imagine that! Me, a hiker with a dang ol' job. I know; I almost felt like a class traitor too. But oh god, how good it felt to have a purpose. I was finally going to be able to give back to a hobby that had given so much to me throughout the years. And it was great work too. In the words of Matthew Nelson, director at the Arizona Trail Association, "Mostly, we are trying to learn more about wildlife within the Arizona Trail corridor. Anyone who has ever spent time hiking knows that it's not just about the trail -- it's the landscapes, wildlife, dark skies, natural quiet, and other resources that define the 'trail experience.' By gathering data, we are adding layers of importance to the trail itself, which may benefit the protection of the trail as well as the protection of species found within close proximity to a National Scenic Trail."
My job was to perform intensive point counts of birds every day while thru-hiking the AZT. The process itself was pretty straightforward, plus there is a great video by Jennie Macfarland at Tucson Audubon Society about how to do them yourself. Find a campsite, and then all you have to do is plant yourself in one spot at dusk and record every bird that's seen or heard for ten minutes. And then wake up and do it again at dawn. Stand in the same spot, hopefully, one with a little bit of sun, and have the monocular ready to deploy at any moment. When I asked Jennie if she had some advice for people looking to get into birding, she said this:
"IT'S BEST TO START WITH A BOOK OF BIRD SPECIES OF YOUR AREA. THERE ARE OFTEN SPECIES IN A BOOK THAT LOOK VERY SIMILAR. THEY CAN BE VERY CONFUSING FOR BEGINNING BIRDERS BUT ARE ACTUALLY QUITE DISTINCT IN WHAT HABITATS AND ELEVATIONS THEY OCCUPY. THERE ARE ALSO LOTS OF SMARTPHONE APPS NOW THAT INCLUDE AUDIO OF THE SPECIES, WHICH CAN BE VERY FUN AND HELPFUL. MERLIN IS ONE I RECOMMEND THAT IS FREE, BUT IF YOU ARE WILLING TO SPEND SOME MONEY, THE SIBLEY GUIDE TO BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA IS GREAT."
Easy enough, right? For the most part, it wasn't too bad. All those mornings studying and memorizing bird calls so that I could overthrow Steve and Sue were paying off. A few house finches, lots of ravens, Gila woodpeckers, Bewick's wrens, occasional Arizona woodpeckers. Steller's jays and chickadees at higher elevations. The usual suspects. Plus, there was a very sweet $500 stipend attached to the work.
But then, sometimes, it was a bit tougher. Because, you know, as it turns out, the black-throated sparrow and the black-chinned sparrow are sometimes hard to distinguish without hearing the call. And if the light isn't hitting them right, turkey vultures, zone-tailed hawks, and common black hawks can all look remarkably similar as they're briefly flying over you. Was I hearing the 'keew' of the gilded flicker or the northern flicker? A hummingbird just whizzed past, and it looked, I don't know, pretty green-ish? Okay, broad-billed, broad-tailed, black-chinned, or maybe even an Anna's hummingbird? Impostor syndrome often crept in. I felt like I was failing the test, letting everyone down because I couldn't be sure if it was a Cassin's finch or a house finch.
But, you know, I convinced myself that I loved the difficulties. I wanted to do the job right. For the birds. For posterity. I told myself that memorizing the minute differences in bird songs and field markings was like putting pieces of a puzzle together. All those years of fruitlessly job searching on LinkedIn told me that this wasn't so much of a "challenge" as it was an "opportunity."
And then, of course, there was the question of miles. You know what I'm talking about.
I'd already done most of the Appalachian Trail a few years before. The Colorado Trail last summer. And the Ouachita Trail as a warm-up for the AZT (I can hear you rolling your eyes, Coach). I had the HMG Windrider, the Lone Peaks, a trekking pole tent. I was cold-soaking. I'd Googled to make sure whether or not I had the most lightweight monocular on the market. At the end of the day, some might refer to this as full-blown ultralight behavior.
And that was sometimes the hardest part: having to shift this whole mental paradigm away from just crushing miles. I was slowing down, inspecting holes in trees and cacti, starting to see everything on the trail as a potential bird habitat. For my whole life, bird songs at dawn had just been white noise, something occurring in the background that was occasionally annoying when I was trying to sleep. And now I was picking each of them apart. It's like how once you know something, you can't un-know it, you know? Sometimes it drives you a bit crazy. Certainly, it can lead to an obsession of sorts.
All this is to say that some of my favorite experiences on the Arizona Trail came about because of birding. And they're experiences that I would have never had if I hadn't slowed down and paid closer attention to the things surrounding me. When I asked him about it, Matthew Nelson said something similar:
"The more you know about the area you're going to be hiking, the deeper the connection and the richer the experience. For me, hiking isn't so much about the exercise or moving across the landscape as much as it is nature immersion. I guess I take the Leave No Trace ethic of Plan Ahead and Prepare to extremes by spending time getting to know an area before I visit."
What that kind of "immersion" means will naturally be different for everybody. But from a bird perspective, I agree with Jennie Macfarland in how rewarding that can be:
"It is very useful to enter a checklist into the eBird database if you are able to identify birds. And using an app such as iNaturalist facilitates documenting species of plants, insects, and birds and is very useful too. This is also very helpful in a community science aspect and helps give back to science and conservation while hiking a trail."
I can think of a few ways that all these slow rhythms really added some cool dynamics to this hike. For instance, there was this one morning hiking out of Kearny. Fresh off some town pizza, jazzed on real coffee, we accidentally got too close to a cottonwood tree where a common black hawk (not actually very common here) was nesting. So we set off the mother's alarm calls. Everyone walked right past, not thinking twice about it. But I thought that it was a unique sounding alarm, not quite an osprey or a red-tailed hawk. And so I stopped to look up, and there she was, 25 feet up at the top of the tree, making sure she had a good view of us. I felt guilty, maybe said a little apology for the disturbance, but okay, I was also secretly thrilled.
Or there was the afternoon that we hiked out of Patagonia into Madera Canyon. My enthusiasm was way up there. I'd just had a huge burrito. I felt great. Plus, after all, Madera Canyon is one of the four places in Arizona that you can potentially encounter an elegant trogon. And so you can bet that I would stop at every sycamore tree and scrutinize every branch. Trogons love sycamores. They're beautiful trees; who could blame them? The orange leaves in spring, the smooth bark, the way they seem so stoic and solitary. But this, of course, came at the great chagrin of the three people I was hiking with. After all, the sun was getting pretty low, and rain was in the forecast. But then my friend pointed to a sycamore about 50 yards off trail and said, "What's that?" And I pulled out my monocular and, what do you know, it was a pair of gray hawks high up in the tree staring right at us. Dejection? Not exactly. I couldn't believe it. Munificent, stripey, ruthless, intriguing. Although they're common south of the border, the gray hawk is probably even rarer than the elegant trogon to see in the U.S.
I tried to explain this to my friends. They seemed mildly interested. Meanwhile, I was totally reeling. It was such a cool moment. And it really put this idea into more perspective of what you might see when you slow down. I mean, think about it: how many times in our lives have we walked right past some extremely exotic plant, an endangered animal, a unique bird, and had zero idea of it? It felt special and so gratifying to cultivate that kind moment for myself and my friends.
It took 40 days to thru-hike the whole Arizona Trail. And in that time, I logged over 70 new species of birds that I'd never seen before. A friend likes to joke that I caught 70 new pokemon. There were also Gila monsters, rattlesnakes, and tons of other crazy wildlife and views. And to be honest, I don't think I would've been able to swing a hike on the AZT this year if it weren't for the stipend. It was a great way to be able to give a bit of love back to a trail that gave so much to me, and it also made it financially possible to experience it. So I wanted to make sure that anyone looking for a way to be involved is aware of the opportunities. "Stipends have been a great way for thru-distance hikers to hike with a purpose and to earn a few bucks along the way," says Nelson. "Each season (NOBO in Spring and SOBO in Autumn) we offer a few different data collection opportunities for thru-hikers, including documenting water sources; impacts from ranching; hazardous trail conditions; campsites and camping impacts; and birds," So make sure and keep an eye on the ATA blog if you want to be involved. Or, if you're looking at getting into birding on the trail, Jennie Macfarland has a bit of advice on how to get started too:
"Those interested in the more involved point count data collection can get in contact with me (or you!) to get the details of what to do and what is involved. But if others are looking to collect data more casually, this can still be useful and done easily through eBird using their free app. I suggest one start a new list every few miles hikes (max 4 miles per list) or start a new list when there is a noticeable habitat shift. "
The desert is so hostile; it's amazing. But then again, I guess I always loved things that didn't love me back. Things that really make you work to earn it, you know? The saguaros reward you with a certain type of not-even-forced spirituality, especially with all the poor-wills and owls calling at night. I loved how pointless and small the dark skies made me feel. The Grand Canyon was grand, as you can imagine. Although I have to admit that I was a bit sad, I didn't get to spot any of the condors that live there. But, you know, that's such a huge part of birding—the lesson that you can learn if you feel like learning it: so many times you are going to be disappointed. You try so hard to see certain birds and feel like a failure when it doesn't happen. It's so zen. And it just keeps happening every day, over and over. It feels good to know that they don't exist just for you to witness. They're living their own lives. But it makes it that much more special when it does happen too. Which is why I can only imagine I'm going to totally lose my shit when, one day, I do finally see an elegant trogon.