Sky Islands

Don Stap

In early May we are driving south from Phoenix on Interstate 10. The land in every direction is sparsely vegetated—saguaro cactus, organ pipe cholla, barrel cactus, and mesquite. Dust blows across this big sandbox. The sky is hazy. To the east, in the distance, are what appear to be massive heaps of dirt left over from some grand construction project gone wrong. But this is a trick of light. These hills of dirt are, in fact, some of southeast Arizona’s famous “sky islands,” roughly forty small mountain ranges that rise from the desert floor like far-flung outcroppings of the Rocky Mountains to the northeast and Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains to southwest.

If one begins in the desert and ascends a sky island it is much like stepping from an arid plain into a northern forest, from cactus and mesquite to pine and fir. Such a range of life zones accounts for the great diversity of bird life in this corner of the state: 400 species or more in any given year, nearly 40% of all the birds in the United States. On some days In April and May—the peak of migration—it seems there are as many birders as birds. I think of myself as a birdwatcher rather than a birder, even though I’m not certain of the distinction between the two, or if, in fact, there is one. It seems appropriate that here, among one of the greatest displays of birds in the country, I let these contestable designations stir in the back of my mind the next few days.

Terry, my wife, and I are headed to Green Valley, a small town forty miles north of the Mexican border. With only a week to explore two of the sky islands, we’ve decided to spend three days in the nearby Santa Rita Mountains, then head ninety miles east to the Huachuca Mountains where we’ll meet up with my oldest friend, a first-rate birder. I’ve known John for more than fifty years. He began making annual visits to Arizona long ago to visit his parents who retired here. Then he moved to Phoenix a few years ago. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that he knows the birds of Arizona about as well as anyone.

On our first day Terry and I drive 20 miles east to the Santa Rita Mountains, one of those “piles of dirt” we saw on our way here. This sky island rises to 9,000 feet.  The road leading into it follows Madera Canyon, carved by the creek that runs through it, the result of thousands of years of snow melt finding its way down the mountains. We walk up the canyon, in places following the path we took when we made this same trip seven years ago. The days here are slow, and we see more birds than we can keep track of. At one spot we sit on a bench near several hummingbird feeders and watch a brilliant cast of birds so small—with wings that beat fifty times per second—that early naturalists thought they must ride on the back of larger birds when they migrated each spring and fall. I can only identify about half of them, but their iridescent colors, speed and agility, and feisty demeanors packed into delicate bodies, make it easy to accept not knowing who is who. We watch for a long time as these whirring avian ninja battle for supremacy at favored spots. They skip the light fandango, and I am as lost in their gyrations as I am in time and old song lyrics.

On day four we drive east to Sierra Vista, a town at the foot of the Huachuca Mountains. There we meet up with John and that evening go out for a bite to eat. John was also in Madera Canyon on our last day there, but our paths did not cross. As we talk, John pulls out a checklist for the birds of Madera Canyon and marks off those he saw. “Seventy-three species,” he says at last. “Not too bad for one day.” I think about my own list, recorded in my notebook, but I’ve made note of only the birds that interested me. Why include something as plain and common as the cowbird I saw? John keeps a “life list”—all the birds he has seen in North America over the years. Presently, it rests at 607 species. My life list is . . . I have no idea. Over the years, I’ve sometimes checked off birds in different field guides or bird checklists, but the lists are incomplete.

John takes great pleasure in how many species he saw in one place or another, as if he was engaged in a birding contest—but he is competing only with himself. “Birding,” in the sense it is used today, acquired a foothold in the language in the 1960s and spread rapidly, replacing “bird watching” at the same time that bird enthusiasts began to grow in numbers and various competitions attracted more birders. Big Days (the number of species sighted in 24 hours) and Big Years became serious, but friendly (well, usually friendly) competitions. I suspect that the change to “birder” also had something to do with the way “bird watchers” were portrayed in movies and on television: skinny, bespectacled middle-age men (and it was usually men) wearing outfits resembling Boy Scout attire. By the 1970s the nature tour business was thriving, giving birders the opportunity to visit bird-rich areas throughout the world in the company of expert guides.

John grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, spending his summers at a recently founded nature center. There he did volunteer work, making new trails and clearing old ones. And he spent time with older, experienced naturalists who taught him about the area’s flora and fauna. I grew up in the farm country northeast of Kalamazoo where I spent much of my time wandering the farm fields, woods, marshes, and lakes in our area. There were only three houses within a mile of ours, but there were birds everywhere. I watched Red-winged Blackbirds sway on a cattail, tilt their heads back and pour out a liquid song that seemed to run across a washboard at the end. I knew the roller-coaster flight of Goldfinches, the sudden storms of Barn Swallows, the iridescence of Grackles, and how on summer afternoons Red-tailed Hawks drifted far above me in the Michigan sky. I didn’t have a true field guide or a pair of binoculars. I wonder now if my lack of guidance (which was just fine with me) has something to do with the way I still look at birds.

Weeks before our trip to Arizona I told John I expected him to be our personal bird guide, and we joked about this, but as we talk over dinner it is apparent he has planned our next three days carefully. The next day at our first two stops we come across nearly a dozen species I’ve not seen before—all in one morning. A Curve-billed Thrasher, Scott’s Oriole, and Spotted Towhee are particularly eye-catching. But perhaps because sparrows are usually drab, my favorite birds are a Lark Sparrow and a Black-throated sparrow. The Lark Sparrow has bold white and black stripes on its head with chestnut patches just below its eyes which remind me of the harlequin patterns on a wood duck. The colors on a Black-throated Sparrow are not quite as complex but they are every bit as striking, a white eyebrow that is so long it reaches the back of the sparrow’s head and a streak of white below its eye as well, all in sharp contrast to the black on its throat that spills to its upper breast. It’s difficult to stop watching them.

We move from place to place the remainder of the day. On our second day we drive north to a rarely-traveled side road off Highway 82. Some years back this spot became famous when a pair of Rose-breasted Becards, a tropical species rarely seen north of Mexico, nested here, but today we are looking for another rarity: a Thick-billed Kingbird. These birds must laugh behind our backs at the fuss we make over them, all because they’ve crossed a boundary visible only on a map. We walk up and down the road in the company of a few other birders, and after twenty minutes someone spots the kingbirds. They are sitting on a branch in the open, and we get a good look at them. Their thick bills remind me of those of the Loggerhead Shrikes I see in Florida.

I confess I’m pleased to see this rarity, and find myself enjoying this typical birding moment: seeing a bird only because others have told us where to go. It also reminds me that last July John jumped in his truck and drove seven hours to New Mexico’s Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to see, as he wrote to me, “the rarest bird in America right now”: a Rufous-necked Wood Rail, a bird never before seen in the United States.

A few years ago, several Fork-tailed Flycatchers caused a stir in central Florida. They were a good bit north of their usual range, Central and South America. They are striking birds—tails more than twice as long as their bodies—and stories appeared in the newspaper weekly about how many birders from around the country were arriving to see them. These birds were about half an hour north of my house and, like the kingbirds, were easy to view because each evening they perched in the same place on a telephone wire. But I couldn’t convince myself to get in the car and drive the short distance to see them. I didn’t like the idea of standing on the road with three or four dozen others in order to place them on my non-existent life list. But hadn’t I done just that with the Thick-billed Kingbirds? How was this different? Why, on that earlier trip to Arizona, did I get excited when I saw my first Painted Redstart, my first Verdin, my first Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher?

At the end of our Arizona trip I’m no closer to a clear and unarguable distinction between birder and birdwatcher than when we began. When I return to Florida and leaf through my notebook, I stop at my notes on the Lark Sparrow. I open an old field guide I used in the 1970s. I see no notes by the Lark Sparrow’s entry, so most likely I saw it for the first time on this trip as I thought was the case. On the same page, however, I see a note by the Black-throated Sparrow that reads “Arizona—Waputki National Monument—April 1978.” I smile.  So the Black-throats I’d seen on our trip were not new to me after all. And then my hazy memory became clearer. I recall that first trip Terry and I made to the sky islands. We saw Black-throated Sparrows every day around the cabin we rented at the base of the Chiricuaha Mountains, the grandest of the sky islands. I was delighted then that I thought I was seeing a bird I’d never seen before. I think for a moment about the excitement that I felt seeing the Black-throated Sparrow on this Arizona trip with John, a pleasure I’d experienced twice before. Nevermind that it was the same bird.

For birders and birdwatchers—perhaps for anyone with a modicum of interest in the natural world—there is something special about seeing a bird for the first time, regardless of the circumstances. My field guide from the 1970s was one I carried with me when I lived in Utah as I worked on a graduate degree. There were dozens of birds there that were new to me, species found only in the West. I had never seen a Black-necked stilt before, or an Avocet, a Yellow-headed blackbird, Long-billed curlew. I’d never before needed a field guide so much. I wanted to know the name of these western birds. But naming was close kin to classifying, a purely mental activity. Identifying two small sandpipers—were they Western Sandpipers or Semipalmated?—satisfied an ancient longing as natural and essential as finding order in the world. But it is easy to confuse naming with understanding. When the sandpipers suddenly rose as one and circled swiftly over the water, the flock expanding and contracting like an accordion playing the wind, what were they then? Whatever they were—restlessness, the joy of flight—it was something irreducible and unnameable.