July 21, 2016
Blue Mockingbird
As well chronicled in these columns, I no longer belong to that subspecies of birders known as listers, but I’m still a list guy.  Always have been.  Always will be.  My best friend blames my anal personality, and I can’t deny her the pleasure of this trenchant observation as I inject another list into the column.

I recently read a piece by a film critic listing his reminiscences from the viewing of various films.  It was more about the remembrances the films triggered than about the films themselves.  I’ve written in the past that birders are nothing so much as memory collectors.  Birders are a disparate and interesting lot, all with stories about the travel, discovery, disappointment, and exhilaration, all associated with various species seen or chased.  These five “paragraph stories,” random but listed chronologically, reflect some of my most vivid birding memories and highlight the adventure of birding and the humanity of birders.

THE BIG KISS—February 1992
I remember going to see North America’s first Blue Mockingbird, discovered on a Christmas Count in Santa Cruz County, Arizona.  On the first Saturday after it is reported, I am one of a dozen birders gathered on a public road along the boundary of a private ranch to search for this mega-rarity.  It proves to be reclusive, and as we glass the brush piles and flood debris along Sonoita Creek we get only cursory glimpses, never a satisfying look, as the bird skulks through leaves and underbrush seeking insects.

By Sunday there are thirty birders on site, mostly high ranking listers from all over the country, but since I am the only holdover from the previous day I know best how and where to watch for the bird.  I see it first, get everyone on it, and eventually all have good looks.  Listers are all about milestones of course, and this turns out to be #700 for well-known and highly respected birder, Olga Clarke from California, whom I know by sight but have never met.  As she leaves the scene she walks over, hugs me tightly, and plants a big sloppy one on me right in front of God and everyone.  Twenty-four hours later I am still tingling, and it isn’t about the mockingbird.

LOW BRIDGE—August 1994
I remember the moment the American Birding Association designated the transplanted Himalayan Snowcock a viable, countable species.  Hard core listers (like me at the time) begin scheming to find it in the rugged wilderness of the Ruby Mountains of northern Nevada.  There are only two ways to access its territory:  an arduous backpack of several days and hope to be lucky; or horsepack in with hunting guide Bill Gibson who knows the Rubies like the back of his hand.  Photography equipment dictates the latter course for us.

This is my first time ever on a horse.  On the first day I am on Toby, Bill’s most tractable beast, and I am getting reasonably comfortable giving him directions when he suddenly decides he needs to catch up with his buddy, Jiggs, being ridden far ahead in the lead by Bill.  Luckily I see the low hanging Ponderosa Pine boughs in time, ducking behind Toby’s neck, heart exploding, trusting that he will not decapitate both of us.

I remember hunkering down yards off the runway as the C-130 cargo jet passes only yards overhead.  Attu Island, Alaska, the westernmost point of the Aleutian Island chain, is the site of the second bloodiest battle of the Pacific Theater in World War II.  By the 70s it has become the Holy Grail of North American birders seeking Asian migrants storm blown off course as they make their way north to Siberia.  Access is possible only because the Coast Guard has a station on the desolate, isolated island and maintains a runway for military cargo planes delivering supplies once a week.

Birders come for a few weeks every June and bird the western part of the island on foot or on rusty bicycles.  They walk the runway whenever possible, immeasurably easier than slogging across the tundra.  The morning after the discovery of multiple Terek Sandpipers, the bird of the trip for most of us that year, Mike Toochin, James Huntington, and I are walking up the runway when we hear the roar of the weekly C-130 approaching through the fog and drizzle.  We have seconds to scramble off the tarmac, duck and cover.  This is an enormous cargo jet capable of a 32,000 pound payload.  Imagine the noise, the shock, and the awe

IN DENIAL—May 2006
I remember for several years after “Bird Is a Verb” first appears on the Arizona Republic’s Environmental Page I field inquiries from readers about “their” birds.  One spring I receive an excited call from woman in North Scottsdale telling me she has Merlin’s nesting on her property.  Is this unusual?  Well, yeah!  Merlins are taiga falcons occasionally found nesting in the northern Rockies.  No Arizona breeding records exist.

She is positive and adamantly refuses to hear that her birds are probably American Kestrels.  The next morning finds me driving to her home, rehearsing the gentlest way to tell her she has misidentified her “Merlins.”  She is more elderly than I had thought from her telephone voice, and just as disappointed as I feared when I tell her they are, indeed, “just” kestrels.  When I ask if I may stay on her porch and try to photograph, she eagerly consents.  A phone rings, she excuses herself to answer it, and I hear her animatedly greet her daughter calling from out of state, then lower her voice—“Yes, he’s here right now, taking pictures of my Merlins.”

I remember driving back to Nome just before midnight under gray Arctic skies, coming from a feeding frenzy of Black-legged Kittiwakes and jaegers a few miles back on the beach.  We come across a grass fire on the tundra next to the road, covering perhaps three acres.  Surreal as it seems, there appears to be a human figure dancing about through the low, flickering flames!  Tired voices fill the van with hesitant opinions—“alcohol involved,” “none of our business,” “report when we get to Nome.”  Only Angela McCain, the rheumatologist from Houston, speaks up for our better instincts—“If that man dies, we’ll never be able to forgive ourselves.”

Matthew Studebaker whips the van around.  We pile out and run to the fire.  It is spreading in a circle.  We see the man, an Inuit, lying down now inside the circle near one edge, apparently asleep, his head on a smoldering log, his boot soles smoking, rifle nearby.  Dean Newman unloads the rifle, flings it toward the beach, pockets the shells.  Four of us, one on each limb, lift the man, gingerly dodge small flames, and stagger out of the fire with him.  He awakens, struggles with us, mumbles about stamping out the blaze.  We lay him down on the beach and return to our van.  We look back and see the man again inside the flames.  A fire truck going the other way passes us a few miles down the road.  It is a silent trip on into Nome, each of us lost in private thoughts.