September 4, 2014
Swainson's Hawk
Swainson' Hawk

On a Labor Day weekend visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park we overheard two twenty-something couples talking about why they were there.  One of them said they had come “because it’s on our bucket list to visit as many of the parks and national monuments as we can.”

I’d say twenty-somethings with a bucket list are goal oriented and on a mission, but it reminded me of one of my first columns in which I wrote that collecting seems to be one of the primary motivations for birding.  Collecting lies latent within our species’ psyche, and most of us, subconsciously perhaps, collect something.  There are all manner of collections, from little boys with baseball cards evolving into old men with antique cars, and many of those collections have to do with history, travel, and nature, all part of the human experience, human DNA.  I personally know people who collect ghost towns, islands, fourteeners in Colorado, and canyons in Arizona, in addition of course to my birding acquaintances, some of whom are listers, most of whom are not.

Here’s a paragraph I wrote in that previous column—“The need to collect is a primitive, deeply ingrained facet of our human nature.  As birders grow older, though, and their lists longer and more diverse, most realize they haven’t simply been collecting marks on a checklist, but memories.  Remembrances of people, places, and things.  A fellow birder who became a close friend, an isolated desert spring that became a personal shrine, a favorite field guide that became more valuable as it slowly dog eared and fell apart.”

We had thought about seeing the Carlsbad caverns for many years but had not gotten around to it.  The season, the habitat, and the geology all conspired to make our trip much more about the caverns than any birds we saw but, as often happens with long time birders, we realized the birds we saw became reference points for the events of a memorable weekend trip.

We saw multiple Swainson’s Hawks, the signature raptor of the Chihuahuan Desert badlands.  We chuckled during the ranger program when we heard non-birders mistake the Cave Swallows, feeding overhead in the dusk, for the much anticipated principals in the nightly emergence of the half million Mexican/Brazilian Free-tailed Bats who roost in the caverns in the warm weather months.  Tallying a dozen roadrunners in three days reminded us why Greater Roadrunner is New Mexico’s state bird, not Arizona’s.  The last one we saw was lounging on top of a picnic table in the shade of a ramada one day at high noon.

None of these species was new, rare, or unexpected, but I recorded them all as mementoes of a special visit to a new and special place in our country.  We’re not collecting national parks, and I’m no longer collecting bird sightings, but as experienced birders all know, the collection of the associated memories become more precious as we get older.

Cave Swallow
Cave Swallow