Evening Grosbeaks squabbling
Evening Grosbeaks squabbling

Grand Canyon, South Rim.  Saturday, March 20.  Sunrise, 6:40am.  Overnight low last night, 12 degrees.  Snowmelt puddles, frozen solid.  Every joint in my body, saying hello.  Sleeping bag rating, could be lower.  Cell phone, dead.  My wife, Deva, back home, undoubtedly ecstatic she didn't come along on this camping trip.

Because I have never owned a television nor lived in a home which had one, many of my friends accuse me of being a Luddite.  I will accept only quasi-Luddite.  I am, after all, transcribing these words on a computer, and I do own a cell phone.  It's largely the RTFM thing I have problems with.  However, when I have a pressing technology issue, I'm usually able to solve it rather easily.  I call my wife.  I'd love to call her right now.  For two reasons.  The obvious one, to find out how to make my cell phone live again.  The other, to let her know I have found the Evening Grosbeaks.  This call, of course, is not going to happen.

I've pressed every button on the cell phone in every possible combination, but all the beast will tell me is that it is fully charged.  The grosbeak flock, maybe a dozen strong with males, females, and some that I take to be last year's young, are squabbling among themselves, rattling and buzzing, telling me perhaps there is some hope for our planet.  Finding them this quickly was a good thing.  It leaves time this afternoon to seek another small ray of that same hope.  Actually several large rays.  The California Condors are rumored to be returning to the South Rim.

Evening Grosbeak, one of our largest finches, is an inhabitant of coniferous forests across Canada and has bred across the northern tier of states, throughout the Pacific Northwest, and southward down the spine of the Rockies into Arizona where it nests locally above the Mogollon Rim.  I feel obligated to describe this big finch with the huge bill, yellow and black with white wing patches, because fewer and fewer North American birders are getting the opportunity to see one for themselves.  Evening Grosbeak is in serious decline across its entire range.

This is a species that underwent an extensive range expansion eastward in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, fueled by two things:  the planting of box elder trees whose seeds became a new, reliable food source, and the outbreak of spruce budworms, a favored food item, in northern spruce forests.  Winter Evening Grosbeak flocks, always unpredictable and nomadic wanderers given to southward irruptions, have largely disappeared from formerly visited winter areas, particularly in the Northeast.  Some surveys suggest an eighty percent population decline, possibly coincidental with pesticide spraying programs successful in killing off spruce budworm outbreaks.

In early fall a small flock of Evening Grosbeaks was reported bathing at a spring on the North Rim of the Canyon, but it's a long drive to the North Rim and I was tied up with life at the time.  The group I am watching now, perhaps a dozen strong including at least four or five males, is at Desert View near the Watchtower.  It represents the twelfth sighting of the species I have had in Arizona, but the first in almost ten years.  But then, Evening Grosbeak, as erratic here as it is throughout its range, isn't a species birders go out to specifically look for in Arizona.  They find you, then you rejoice at the serendipitous coincidence of the wanderings of two disparate species, one the endangeree, one probably the endangerer.

Some of my previous eleven records were in logical places:  one at Mormon Lake in winter; two in the White Mountains, one of those on a Breeding Bird Survey I used to do there; three at Comfort Springs at the top of Carr Canyon in the Huachucas; one at friends' feeders in Heber, above the Rim.  The others, though, were in quite unlikely places:  Dead Horse Ranch State Park, which is below the Rim and has no habitat I've ever associated with Evening Grosbeaks; two on the Navajo Reservation, which is devoid of almost all vegetation I would associate with any species, but on both occasions it was autumn and the grosbeaks were coming to Russian Olives; and a sighting at Arivaca Lake in southeast Arizona, the strangest sighting of all.

I suppose, if a gun were placed against my back, I'd say Evening Grosbeak is one of my favorite passerines, certainly in the top ten.  There is something about the massive bill, which can be bright green on males in spring, that gives the bird an other worldly feel, perhaps because it slopes downward from a point just in front of the eye, giving the appearance of a shield, a horny extension of the skull itself rather than a separate piece of the bird's anatomy.  The overall effect is that this species appears to have no forehead.  Of course, too, we treasure that which is rare and unusual, and there is certainly that to be said of these huge and handsome finches.

On the few occasions I have been lucky enough to discover a flock of Evening Grosbeaks, the term that enters my mind when I see a male is not "male."  Rather, I think "bull."  The male's brownish-black head sports a bright yellow patch beginning immediately above that massive bill, and the yellow tapers back in high contrast above and behind the eye.  If the male is staring at you or into your camera, this resembles nothing so much as the rack on a Texas Longhorn steer.  Seen from above, these massive "horns" contrast with the black crown of the bird to form a perfect horseshoe, and the overall look of the male seems to say "Don't mess with me!"

Wondering how relatively small birds survive a twelve degree overnight is not warming my cold feet.  The sun is higher now in a cloudless sky, temperatures in the mid-forties are predicted, and there are more tourists in the park than I would have guessed for a mid-March weekday.  I climb into the van and head west toward Grand Canyon Village.  Snow is still everywhere except on the roadways.  The cell phone, now plugged into the van's battery, continues to say "fully charged," but I cannot make it do anything.  Maudlin though it seems in the brightness of the day and the proximity of civilization, I flash again to the jolting revelation in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air that one of the principals in the ill-fated Everest expedition which he chronicles spoke by satellite phone, as he lay dying, with his wife.  In New Zealand!  Shivers course my spine as I contemplate the metaphysical conundrums raised by this scenario, but I am left, in the end, with only this fact.  I cannot contact my wife in Phoenix, three hours away as the raven flies.  Perhaps if I were dying, my cell phone would come alive?

I'm not playing the license plate game, but I'm seeing many non-residence plates, mostly from the Midwest and upper Plains states.  Twelve degrees overnight is probably balmy to these people.  Everything from RVs towing jeeps to motorcycles is passing by in both directions, and tourists at the Watchtower were dressed in everything from T-shirts to hooded parkas and gloves.  By the time I park behind Verkamp's, my feet have passed from numb to tingly.  I grab the baby 400mm lens and leave the tripod, knowing I'll be lucky to see a condor let alone have a photo op.

I walk to the loading area for the Hermit's Rest buses and find one is about to leave.  I stick my head in the door and query the driver.  He has not seen a condor today but suggests hanging out around Bright Angel Lodge between 3:00 and 5:00pm.  I thank him, decide not to trip out to the far west end after all, and walk back up the hill toward Bright Angel.  I will sit in the sun, have lunch, watch tourists, and hope a condor finds me.

Several of the tourists are eating ice cream!  Okay, I have since looked up the definition of "tourist" to find that it is officially "one who travels for pleasure."  I get the connection between ice cream and pleasure, but I'm missing the connection between ice cream and forty degree weather and the one between ice cream and the Grand Canyon.  And I'm skeptical about tourists and condors, too, because everyone I see is gawking down into the canyon.  No one is watching the skies for the giant relic from the Pleistocene, the only true non-tourist at the Canyon.

There is a signboard in front of the Lookout Studio announcing a condor program by a ranger at 3:00pm.  Lunch over, I glance at my watch.  It is 2:45.  I sit on the rock wall protecting the tourists from the long drop into eternity, dangle my feet over the edge, and watch the vast expanse of sky out over the Canyon to the east past the El Tovar flagpole.  The sun is behind me now, and I remember from past summers that the condors typically course along close to the rim as they ride the afternoon thermals.  Maybe I'll get lucky.

The ranger for the condor program walks by, invites me to his talk, sees the lens, wishes me luck.  He has not seen a condor today either.  I ask him about the ice cream.  He shakes his head and smiles.  The program is in an open area thirty yards down the path, and a few people are gathering.  I can only guess that I have chosen a propitious spot for my vigil.  Wouldn't the park staff, here and observant every day, choose a spot for a condor talk where a live condor might actually fly by?

Many of the tourists milling about with their ice cream are more interested in my camera lens than they are in Canyon views, the awe of the place apparently wearing off quickly.  I hear laughter behind me.  I turn to see a group of about twenty Japanese tourists pointing at my camera and lens and taking pictures of . . . me, my camera, and my lens.  They smile and wave and, when I smile back, several walk over beside me, turn and smile toward their compatriots on the walkway busily snapping away with point-and-shoots.  I smile at the point-and-shoots too.  Alright, my lens is bigger than their lenses, but it's not a "super telephoto."  Maybe they recognize the Canon brand and know it is Japanese made.  Becoming the center of this photo op, Grand Canyon in the background, is more weird than the ice cream thing.  I should contact Canon's advertising and marketing department.  One of their lenses is trumping one of the world's natural wonders, and I have become a Canon groupie.

I turn back to my vigil and glance at my watch.  It is 3:45.  The ranger talk, down the path to the west, is well under way.  Far out beyond El Tovar a skyspeck morphs into a large, dark bird.  It is not flying with purposeful wingbeats like the ubiquitous Canyon ravens.  It is soaring, effortlessly, riding thermals rising off the rim.  I bring the lens up as the specter, now huge, reaches the flagpole.

I figure in the rapidly closing distance between the condor and me there are upwards of 200 people.  None sees the bird.  Many do not know what a condor is or the significance of its comeback here from the brink of extinction.  Most are peering down into the Canyon, licking their ice cream, or watching me as I follow focus, hand holding the lens.  The sun is directly behind me as the condor passes directly in front of me, at eye level.  The camera speaks in bursts.  I shout at the ranger.  Tourist heads turn.  Tourist eyes follow the lens out over the void, seeing at last the giant bulb of pink head and the huge dark planks of wings with their two foot long primary fingers.  This is the Canyon's only true non-tourist.

This avian wonder, this leftover myth from an ancient world, renders the word "awesome" innocuous.  I capture its image.  I know I am a tourist too.  I know I was born a hundred years too late.
California Condor flight profile
California Condor flight profile