"Sweet, sweet, sweet. I'm so bleepin' sweet." The high, thin, and yes, sweet, song of the red-faced warbler echoes up the canyon from below. Joe Woodley and I exchange high fives as we sit in the shade of a pine at Bathtub Springs in the heart of the Miller Peak Wilderness Area. This is the high Huachucas, 8700 feet. I've been here once before, several years ago after Short-tailed Hawks were discovered oversummering in this basin overlooking Tom Beatty's orchards and bed & breakfast. Joe has been here twice, though, both within the past year, the second time within the past month when he nearly stepped on a male Whip-poor-will apparently on a trailside day roost. Our goals are to refind and photograph the Whip and to photograph Olive Warblers coming to bathe at the spring. Check that. Our goal is to enjoy a tough hike through spectacular scenery which just happens to traverse the habitat of some of the most sought bird species in Arizona.
Joe has all but promised me Olive Warbler, but Red-faced? Not so much. Red-faceds' territories line the 3.5 mile trail up Miller Canyon to the Bathtub, but we've chosen the 4.3 mile alternate route which begins across from the Reef Townsite on the Carr Canyon Road and switchbacks around Carr Peak before intersecting the Crest Trail. Red-faceds like canyons, but not the open, dry chaparral or the cool aspen glades of our route. Joe is packing a scope, breakfast, and lunch, and I'm packing 25 pounds of tripod and telephoto lens, but there's a reason why we've chosen the longer route. The Miller Canyon Trail gains 2950 in elevation to the spring, our route around Carr only 1200.
We've made it to the spring in a leisurely three hours. Packing what we're packing, birding along the way, and keeping a constant eye out above for Short-taileds, leisurely was the only way to go. The bathtub at Bathtub Springs is actually that, a bathtub transported up the mountain by pack train for the miners who hacked out the crude trail up the canyon hoping for gold or silver and later, in the twentieth century, tungsten. Joe and I mine gold from the throat of a male Grace's Warbler and silver along the back and belly of a male Olive Warbler,
but neither comes to drink or bathe. American Robins are the only thing that comes in to the water on this morning. In my low, humid, backyard midwestern youth robins were the scenery. Here in the high mountain west they warrant barely a glance.
On our way up, climbing the switchbacks with the sun, we were "Jose Maria"d by Greater Pewees and put Joe's scope on a distant Olive-sided Flycatcher, apparently a relatively late migrant not yet calling, quickly or otherwise, for that species' traditional "Three BEERS!" The chaparral slopes of the Huachucas seem to be home to the greatest concentration of Spotted Towhees on the planet, but the birds of the trip so far are certainly the pair of Montezuma Quail which we walked up in a grassy area below Carr Peak.
Birders, it seems, never quite get to study the soft, subtle beauty of Montezumas. These elusive quail never tee up and sing like Gambel's or Scalies, and they seldom flush out ahead. They sit tight, trusting their intricate camouflage feathering, then burst out from underfoot, and by the time hiker or birder has recovered enough from the adrenaline rush to realize what just happened, they've dropped back into heavy cover. From there, just in case the searcher has visually marked the spot and is heading that way, they skulk quickly away never to be seen again.
The best aspect of Montezumas, other than seeing them of course, is hearing them. The call is a mournful, descending whinny which I describe as a "silent scream." It is not silent but has some ventriloquial component which always makes it seem very far away. I've never witnessed a Montezuma calling but have no trouble suspecting calling birds are much closer than they sound, perhaps in the manner of Flammulated Owls. One night at a campsite in Harshaw Canyon above Patagonia I was serenaded to sleep by the silent scream, definitely the spooky stuff of bad dreams when heard after dark. I awoke the next morning to find quail prints in the dust of the dry streambed right behind my tent.
The worst aspect of Montezumas, other than not seeing them of course, is knowing there is a hunting season for them and that gunners with dogs are not only seeing but shotgunning them. Do not jump to the conclusion that I am anti-hunting. I'm not, but imagine Deva's and my (supply your own word here) at finding a pile of Montezuma feathers billowing up out of a trash can in the alley behind the Stage Stop Inn in Patagonia one fall after we had spent a three day weekend looking in vain for this species. Successful hunters who, incidentally, know Montezumas as Mearn's Quail, had apparently cleaned their kill in the alley. Game And Fish estimates for the Mearn's "take" in the year 2000 was in excess of 70,000 birds.
Birders consider themselves lucky to see a handful in a lifetime, but Joe and I passed just close enough to a pair near the trail to spook them. I heard wings but saw nothing. Joe saw the female mousing away beneath deadfall debris, probably a nest close by, and we saw movement off in another direction, probably the male. Any and all diagnostic markings on the latter remained hidden to us beneath the bark strewn grasses and wildflowers, a fairly typical Montezuma "sighting."
We drop down the Miller Canyon Trail a few hundred yards to the spot where Joe spooked the Whip, but unlike their distant relatives, the Spotted Owls, who will occupy the same day roost farther down Miller for several successive days, Whip-poor-wills apparently spend the day wherever their nighttime insect foraging happened to end. Miller's Spotted Owls are often found on two or three of the same roosts just past the second stream crossing above Beatty's.
No Whips, but on the way back to the bathtub ahead of Joe, I hear the familiar "Wheeee-ZEET!" of a Cordilleran Flycatcher. Eyes following ears until my vision intersects the singer, I watch a female (male Empids do not help with nest building) ferrying plant fiber to a cup nest being constructed in a dark concavity of a rock outcropping which marks the entrance to an old mineshaft. The tunnel which descends quickly into darkness is marked with the typical forest service skull & bones sign boldly and exclamatorily labeled "Peligro!"
The chain of random thoughts with obscure links which leads from one's here-and-now to some totally unrelated place and time has often fascinated me. Before Joe catches up with me I have gone from the few words of Spanish that I recognize to the trade in illegal drugs and humans in these canyons, to Joe's wife's request that he not hike up here alone, to the body the forest service found up here last month, to how many bodies are at the bottom of these old shafts, to thinking if one fell into this shaft he may as well have fallen all the way to China, to wondering if there are Empids in China, to thinking how cool it would be to pioneer the first comprehensive field guide to Chinese birds. Joe catches up and I ask if he thinks Cordilleran Flycatchers were the miners' canaries up here."
We sit and snack. We hear the Red-faced. We see a hiker emerge through the greenery where the Miller Canyon Trail intersects. An older man, he doesn't appear to be either mule (drugs) or coyote (humans). He has binoculars around his neck. Perhaps a birder, but he obviously doesn't know about the bathtub or he would have checked it out. He peers around, reads the trail signpost, hesitates, then turns and drops back down into Miller Canyon without seeing us.
Joe and I, by some tacit understanding, watch him go without hailing. We might have shown him the Olive Warblers, but we aren't sure he was a birder, and they are not here right now. The sense the hike has given us is that today the bathtub is ours and ours alone. He is the first human we have seen all day. Birders are notoriously sharing, but somehow on this day we don't feel like birders. We are probably a bit full of ourselves for having taken the longer, more circuitous route.
And skywrap trails always put me a reverical mood. Today Joe and I have crossed the top of the world to a special place where mystical quail dance and breed and vividly painted warblers sing and bathe. In this world there are no border disputes, no smugglers, no frenetic tickers checking through their dogeared birdlists, no grumpy bed & breakfast owners haranguing photographers. Nothing but sky, the birds, and the solitude. The way it should be. Maybe the way it was when the miners first came.
As we turn to leave, a raptor flares across the sky at treetop level, startlingly white underneath. Joe and I turn to one another with quizzical smiles. We have seen the hawk only slight seconds apart but from slightly different angles, and we have seen different things. While I try to make it into a light phase Short-tailed, Joe is trying to figure out, more prudently, just what the hell it was. We know it was a buteo. We know several things it wasn't. I'm thinking on this magical day it may have flown up out of the abandoned mine shaft. I'm wishing when I get home there is a comprehensive field guide to Chinese birds awaiting me, opened to some magical and white Far Eastern hawk.