Our trip to Portal from Sierra Vista was quite uneventful, birding-wise, except seeing Swainson’s Hawks on two different occasions, both times atop an electric post. We arrived at Portal much too early for the 2 pm check in time. Rather than be charged an extra day, we just advised the not-too-friendly innkeeper that we’ll just be back at two.
As were leaving, we met a lady who said she just saw some Red Crossbills at the pine tree across the post office. We followed the directions she gave and for about half an hour stood there staring at a tall pine tree totally devoid of any birdlife.
We then tried to locate the fabled Berylline Hummingbird nesting across from the Stewart campground.. We wandered along the creek where the sycamore tree that harbors the nest was supposed to be and saw nothing but the now suddenly common Painted Redstarts and a few Hutton’s Vireos. Thankfully, Walt Carnahan, a veteran birder from the Sierras in California was there, also looking for the Beryllines. As we approached, he motioned us to follow him. Soon enough, we were staring at a tiny, albeit empty, nest high up in the branch of the sycamore. We waited almost breathlessly for some movement that would indicate the presence of either Mama or Papa Berylline. Even a glimpse of a baby bird would make us happy and contented birders. No such luck.
We moved on to the South Fork picnic area. This is Trogon Country, our guidebooks informed us. Along the gravelly road, we saw a couple emerging from the grove of trees by a creek. Birders! We screeched to a halt and asked the gentleman if he has seen anything interesting.
“Trogons!”, he said excitedly. “We followed their calls and saw two of them fly by”.” Just listen and follow the barking sound”, he advised.
Encouraged, we looked for a place to park. Venturing into the woods, I relied on Cynthia’s super ears to listen for any barking sound.
“I hear something”, she said shortly, “but it’s far off.”
Like hungry predators we followed the bird calls hoping to locate its source. Suddenly, it stopped. The silence that ensued was heartbreaking.
We moved on to check out Herb Martyr road only to discover that it doesn’t have much to offer.
“Why don’t we try the Research Station that we passed on the way here?”, my wife suggested. At this point I’m willing to try anything or go anywhere just so I can find a bird that we have not seen before.
The first bird we saw at the Station was a Robin. I just shook my head as dismay started to overcome me. As I took out my camera from the Jeep, I noticed Cynthia clicking away at some birds feeding on the ground next to a red SUV.
“What are those?”, she asked. Inasmuch as the birds were in the shade, it took me sometime before I was able to ID them. Then with the speed and agility of a trained athlete, I quickly moved closer, shooting in bursts. “Yellow-eyed Juncos!”, I whispered to my wife. A smile spread across her face because she knew that this is one of our sought after species. After a while the juncos dispersed and so we explored the surrounding areas. Cynthia got a shot of a sparrow that we were unable to ID at the time. Later on I emailed that photo to the Tucson Audubon Society which confirmed that it was a Rufous-winged Sparrow. Another lifer! I also had an unknown sparrow photo that the TAS later identified as a Rufous-crowned Sparrow which made it our third lifer for that day.
At around 2 pm, we checked-in to our room, noticing how frugal the arrangement was. No refrigerator or microwave and a TV that can only get one station. At least the air conditioner works, Cynthia said consolingly.
Later in the afternoon, we decided to go the Dave Jasper’s place. Dave is a birder who opens his yard to fellow birders. His yard is surrounded by tall bushes and some trees and contains various feeders – similar to the Paton’s in Patagonia. We seated ourselves, once again battling with tiny flying pests (the repellant that we sprayed ourselves with was beginning to wear off). Soon throngs of Gambel’s Quails appeared and began pecking at the various feeders. We have never seen so many quails gathered in one place! And the noise they made was deafening, Imagine hundred of birds cackling together all at the same time. One by one the White-winged Doves joined the feeding frenzy. A few Black-throated Sparrows came and gave us good looks. But the highlight of Dave’s yard was when a pair of Pyrhhuloxias flew in. The name itself conjures some tropical, colorful, winged mythical creatures. We have only caught a glimpse of a female two years ago in Patagonia. And now here they were, in full view, including a beautiful male, red crest fully erect like a wartime banner. The appearance of a Crissal Thrasher was another welcome sight, if a bit anti-climactic.
We returned to the lodge where we had dinner together with a wonderful couple, Walt and Barbara Carnahan..
Bright and early the following day, Friday, we were at South Fork again. We were sitting at a picnic table enjoying a simple breakfast, when we heard the unmistakable “ark! ark! ark” of an Elegant Trogon. It sounded so close, maybe not more than 50 yards away., across from the creek. We jumped and rushed to the edge of the creek, peering through the treetops, hoping for even a glimpse of our quarry. Just like the day before, the bird suddenly stopped calling. Eerie silence followed. Whatever sliver of hope we had slowly drained from our being. As if to add insult to injury a man parked his truck next to us and nonchalantly unleashed two dogs. He then went to potty, leaving the beasts to take control of the parking area. We quickly boarded the Jeep and sped away, both dogs yapping and chasing our vehicle.
The gravel road up to Rustler Camp was steep, winding and badly rutted. Just as we were approaching the campsite, Cynthia asked, “Was that your brakes making funny sounds?” Hearing impaired that I am, I listened intently as I stepped on the brakes while we were rounding a hairpin curve. Sure enough there was a screeching, high pitched sound.
“We have to turn back”, I said gravely.
“Don’t you want to at least continue to Rustler Camp – it’s only 3 miles away?” Cynthia suggested.
“Not with my brakes like this. What if it fails while we are going downhill?”
Bypassing the bird-rich areas of Rustler Camp and Walker House, I made a tough decision.
“Let’s check out and go back to Sierra Vista to have the brakes fixed,” I said firmly.
My wife agreed. By 10 am we were out of Portal. On the highway past the city of Douglas, my wife noticed that the brakes weren’t making as much noise.
“Maybe it’s because we are on a good flat surface road, “ I offered as an explanation.
Since the Jeep was covered by dust and as filthy as can be from all those gravel roads and stream crossings, we thought we ought to wash it first before taking it to brake shop. At the car wash, we were at a stall next to a young Filipino. He was a soldier stationed at Fort Huachuca. Happy to meet another Filipino, we talked for a while and Cynthia even offered to pray for him (his name is Edward) especially when he gets to go for another tour in Iraq.
Leaving the car wash and going to the nearby buffet restaurant, we both noticed that the brakes were not making any noise at all! No matter how hard I stepped on it, there wasn’t any noise and the Jeep stopped on a dime without any problem.
It was 1 pm when we finished our lunch.
“It’s still early,” I said, “we have time to make it home.”
“Are you sure?” my wife wanted to know.
“There’s no point in going back to the Chiricahuas and Sierra Vista doesn’t have much to offer, anyway.”
We were fast asleep in our own bed at 10 pm that night.
The trip wasn't a total disaster. We got seven lifers, even if we dipped on most of our target species.
Best of all, it was the people that we met: Walt and Barbara of the Sierra Foothills Audubon; Austin and Ann of Morongo Valley; Tom and Chris of the Morro Bay Audubon; and of course, Edward of Fort Huachuca. The time we spent with them were short, but they will always be remembered and we hope to meet them again.
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