I am meeting Jeff and Dawn Fine at McDonald’s in Sahuarita, AZ. We are in pursuit of the rufous-capped warbler that has been spotted in Florida (pronounced “Flo REED a”) Canyon. Jeff and Dawn have the directions and GPS coordinates because, though I have lived here in Arizona for almost three years now, I have never been to Florida Canyon.
From a nearby parking lot we carpool to the location off Whitehouse Canyon Rd. The road to Florida Canyon is dirt and bumpy, but not impassable. It leads us higher and higher into oak woodlands. Out my window I see water running in the creek. Along the bank are a few sycamore trees and alligator junipers grow. We cross a cement bridge of sorts and park in the designated parking area. Before us the road ends at the gate to the Florida Work center of the Santa Rita Experimental Range, which is off limits to visitors. As soon as we open the car doors we can hear birds singing. I am scrambling to get all of my gear on as Dawn steps out and starts searching. Jeff is also getting his gear together and soon we are ready to bird. While Jeff and I are just getting started, Dawn has already seen a dark-eyed junco and we are all seeing and hearing Mexican jays.
We are here today because we want to see the rufous-capped warbler. The rufous-capped warbler is a rare vagrant from Mexico that just barely makes it over the border. Of course, birds know nothing of manmade borders and they just go where they want to, or where the winds blow them. Apparently this Warbler has been spotted in this location before and now the directions Jeff holds say it has been spotted in a sycamore tree above the dam. Okay, where is the dam? There are no directions to the damn. We do not even know if it is upstream or downstream.
We walk down the dirt road to the cement viaduct we just drove over. Is this what they consider the dam? I don’t think so. After a few minutes of discussion we head back to the parking area where we saw a trail that crosses the creek and heads up the canyon. Before us the snow-capped peaks of the Santa Rita Range rise out of these sky Islands in the desert. Jeff and Dawn keep looking up in their constant search for birds. Close by on the grassy slopes rocky crags greet us surrounded by a forest of dry ocotillo. We hear the trill of a rock wren and soon spot it bouncing on the rocky hillside.
A bit further up the trail we are seeing and hearing more birds. We stop to spot a noisy flock of bridled titmice moving through the treetops. With them is a ruby-crowned kinglet. Then a flock of Mexican jays moves in. A lone jay flies to the top of a dead snag to survey this canyon kingdom. The blue of its feathers seems as if it has captured the sky in its wings.
It is at this point that we meet a man hiking down the trail with a camera and a VERY BIG lens. He is a friendly gent and we ask him if he has seen the rufous-capped warbler. He tells us he has not, though he has been here three times already looking for it. He tells us it has most often been spotted at 11 AM and 3 PM. Then, he tells us how to get to the dam. This proves to be critical information as we travel further up the trail. I do not believe we would have found it without his directions. Here is what he said and what we did to the best of my recollection:
Follow the trail upwards staying as close to the fence and the creek as you can. You will come to a barbed wire gate that looks like you can’t go through, but you can. Step on the rocks and the fallen ocotillo to cross the creek. Be sure to shut the gate behind you. Next, follow the trail along the fence line toward the Santa Rita Experimental Range compound for a few steps until the trail takes a sharp right turn east to southeast up the canyon. Follow this trail until you come to a water tank. Just beyond the water tank you will see a stone dam. Climb up the rocks on the right-hand side. Then you will be above the dam. Here you will see many burnt trees from a previous fire. It is in this area that we saw the warbler.
Now, here is what happened next:
As we scale the rocks we are scanning the trees and brush for any sight or sound of the bird. The reports all say the bird has been silent and we quickly realize it wouldn’t make any difference if it was making a sound because the rushing and chattering of the water is drowning out everything else. We have to get close to each other to even hear ourselves talk. Now we are trying to decide which sycamore tree they could have been referring to! Dawn showed me some of the pictures others had gotten of the bird. It seems like all the photos show the bird in this weedy stuff down low here near the dam. Still, we are seeing nothing and we decide to go a bit further up the canyon.
Dawn points out a clump of cactus high on a cliff that looks like a flower blossom.
She is also the one who notices this spider at our feet. It blends so perfectly with the rocks. How did she see that? She reminds me of Nina who is always looking down at the small world beneath our feet.
But it isn’t long before Dawn and I decide we would like to stay near the dam and wait. We are not seeing any birds. Jeff, however, decides he wants to continue upwards. So, he hikes on and we find a seat close to the weedy stuff.
As Dawn and I sit and chat about cameras another couple comes along and passes by looking for the warbler. We eat our granola bars and keep our eyes open looking for any movement in the brush. I hear the sound of a bird and cross back to the opposite side of the creek. Dawn follows and we duck under a burnt sycamore tree trying to blend in so we will not be as conspicuous. I find the bird on the rocky cliff to our left and discover it is a canyon wren. We are both enjoying its antics and I am trying to position myself for a shot while Dawn moves off to the right. Just as I am about to lock on to the constantly moving bit of feathered butterscotch Dawn cries out as softly as she loudly can, “It’s here! It’s here!”
Forgetting the canyon wren, I swing around and look in the direction she is pointing. She is so excited that she tells me to take the pictures; she is shaking too much to take any herself. I have to tell you, that if you ever go birding with Dawn, that she is THE BEST spotter!
The warbler is just across the creek from us. It is down low in the weeds making no sound and moving upstream and up the canyon. The time is exactly 11:15 a.m.! However, we are both distressed, because Jeff is not with us. He is missing this! And there is nothing we can do about it. He would not hear our cries even if we were stupid enough to yell. All we can do is watch and wait and hope that he returns soon.
The bird is so tiny but so close that it is not hard to get a photo whenever it pops out of the tangle. Its little rufous cap is like a rust-colored beret and its throat shines brighter than the sun. With its tail cocked up like a wren, the little bird moves busily about its business. It seems little concerned with us or our presence.
Dawn spots the other birders on the opposite bank where we were sitting just a few moments ago. She and I both signal to them and point excitedly but quietly in the direction of the bird. I feel as if my mouth is going to burst with all the words I am trying to hold in. We watch amazed as the warbler moves directly towards the other couple and passes right in front of them to the other side of the creek. Though it is on our side now, it is farther upstream and actually farther away from us due to the twists and turns of its course. Dawn and I leap across the narrow channel and follow it upwards. Now the other man is heading up the canyon in search of Jeff, since he has seen this bird before. To our utter delight Jeff emerges from the brush and gets his bins on the bird! Now we are all seeing it. Now the day is complete!
We continue to watch the bird as it moves up the canyon until the way gets too steep and the bird too far way. It can move through this thick underbrush much quicker than we can, and we all feel that we have had a good long look. From the first sighting it was a good 10 minutes that I was personally photographing the bird.
You can well imagine our conversation as we head down the canyon. We exclaim over and over again, “Did you see that? I can’t believe we saw it. I was so afraid you wouldn’t make it Jeff.” We discuss and rehashed every movement, every decision, and every choice we made. Dawn and I had a feeling that we would see the bird if we just sat quietly and waited. Since it was moving so steadily upstream, we theorized the bird might move up the canyon in the morning and back down in the afternoon. Perhaps that is why it is most often seen at 11AM and 3PM.
Our hike in had seemed so long, but as we hike out we are surprised at how quickly we arrive at the parking lot. Our list for this location is not long, but no one is complaining. We got what we came for and we are content.
*Life bird for all three of us!