I fell in love on the last day of the Great Backyard Bird Count. Not with a bird or a person, but a Place. I fell in love with Catalina State Park. It was one of those impromptu things. I had already counted birds in my own yard, at a friend’s house, along Houghton road, and in a new local park I discovered. I was trying to think of where to go for my last bird count of the day when Chris Rohrer called me. Though it was a holiday, he had to work today. Plus, his father was in town visiting, so I did not think he would have much free time for birding, but I was wrong. He needed his birding fix as much as I needed to count birds, so we made a plan. I picked him up after work around 3:45 PM and we drove over to Catalina State Park. Chris wanted to see if we could find the Golden-crowned sparrow that had been hanging around there. But, here was the glitch: Chris did not have his camera and he does not use binoculars. So, since I had both camera and bins with me, I handed my camera over to him to use and I simply relaxed and watched birds! Perfect! So, all of the bird pictures in this post were taken by Chris, while most of the scenery ones were taken by me. This is the story of our walk through the park and how I fell in love with it.
You must first know that Catalina State park is where I first met Jeff and Dawn Fine years ago. They were travelling the country back then and I was a new blogger back then. They were some of the first people I ever met from my blog and I was a bit skeptical at first. Catalina State Park is north of Tucson and about an hour from where I lived then and now. It was a long drive and I exited my car cautiously, with a promise to Gus that I would call him when I arrived. Within five minutes of meeting Dawn I was totally at ease. By the end of the day I knew I had made a new friend. So, this place was already special to me for that reason, but I don’t remember being particularly impressed with the park back then. As a result, I have never been back, and now that I was headed there again I wasn’t all that excited. On this day Chris and I drove to the end of the road and parked in the parking lot. A cloud bank hung low and heavy over the mountains casting a soft gray light over the mountain slopes. Still, it is warm and even a bit muggy. We cross the parking lot and head for the birding trail, which is where the Golden-crowned sparrow is being seen.
We start seeing cardinals right away and we see several along the trail, but otherwise it is pretty quiet bird-wise. However, people are another matter and we encounter hikers everywhere. Some are birders like us, but most are just out enjoying the warm weather and the state park. We cross a wide wash that flows down out of the mountains. A small rivulet still runs down the middle and we cross the wet spot on stepping stones. On the other side the trail splits into 2 or 3 branches. We follow the sign for the birding trail and hike on. I notice there are more grasses here than in other parts of the Sonoran desert. Some of the grasses are dried to a flaxen color from the winter cold, but already new green shoots are sticking up among the gold giving the ground a patchy look.
As we head for the tangle where the Golden-crowned sparrow is being seen we hear the voices of children up ahead. Loud and rambunctious, I am beginning to think that we will not be seeing many birds. Other hikers are on the trail as well and some seem new to the area as well as to this trail as they stumble along and cross the creek several times. My hopes of seeing birds are growing dim, but then we get into a bit of a canyon where we are temporarily alone and the bird start to quietly move through. We spot one rufous-winged sparrow, and then another. We hear a loud “cheep, cheep, cheep” repeated over and over. We both know we have heard this sound before and we try to identify it. Is is an Abert’s Towhee? A northern cardinal? No, it is a Black Phoebe on a twig over the creek!
We find the tangle where the golden-crowned was being seen, and there is the Black Phoebe and an Oregon junco, but no golden-crowned, even though a birder we met on the trail said he had seen it there just 20 minutes ago! We hang around the area searching and searching, but the hikers are stumbling around this same area and farther down the creek the loud voices of children still ring out. If I were a bird, I would hide too!
For me, I start to enjoy just the feeling of being out in nature. I look at the canyon slopes around me. High overhead the mountain peaks loomed large and strong. The merry song of the creek trickling over the rocks and tumbling down the canyon towards the valley cheers my heart. In spite of the thoughtless hikers and the loud children, I am enjoying myself. Besides, though we are not seeing a lot of birds here, we are seeing species I had not encountered anywhere else over the past four days!
This is the first and only dark-eyed junco I count for the GBBC. This is the first and only Black Phoebe I saw in all of the places I have counted birds. The air is fresh and the day was soft. I am at peace with myself as we continue on the trail.
I try to soak in the feeling of this place. It is already late in the day and as the sun sinks lower, the hikers and children leave and we are finally alone with nature. In this quietness I relax and then I started to fall in love! The trail meanders over the creek and up a steep ridge. As we climb the view improves and suddenly we have sweeping views all around us. I feel the vastness of the landscape and the wildness of it. While saguaros loom large in the landscape the scrubby trees and bushes dot the canyon ridge and slopes. With every turn I see a new vista and I am engaged with my surroundings.
The sun is even lower now, casting a golden light which is diffused by the low clouds, and then I heard a “pik!” We had crossed the mountain ridge and are just starting down the other side when we hear this sound. Chris and I turn and look at each other. We know this sound! The game is on! While Chris goes at it from one angle, I hike back up the trail and go at it from above. We both know what were are looking for but where is it! I know it is right in front of us, I can here it tapping on a branch, and every now and then it calls out, “pik!” and then, I see it!
And though the light is dim and the branches many, Chris is snapping away! He captures just a few pictures of the female ladder-backed woodpecker on a scrubby bush. Bingo! Another species for the GBBC!
Chris and I now head down onto the canyon floor. We follow the winding trail through a mesquite bosque. We listen and look for birds, but it is strangely silent. Sometimes the birds are like that just before a storm. This was late Monday afternoon. By Tuesday it was raining and by Wednesday it was snowing! But oh the beauty of this evening. Storm lighting turned the canyon walls gold and the saguaros glisten in the sun. Behind them dark clouds hang in a denim blue curtain. I am caught up in the magic of this place and I keep saying to Chris, we need to come back here again! I feel like I am connecting with a piece of myself that had been lost for a long time. I want to feel this way again! And this is why Chris and I are friends, because he gets it! He feels the same way. Most of the time, we are not even talking to each other. We are just being. We are just absorbing this nature into our souls.
Soon we are back at the car. As we drive out of Catalina State Park the sunlight turns the low clouds to spun gold, watermelon and apricot. These vibrant colors are edged with lavender and indigo. I swear this park caste a spell on me and I cannot wait to go back! What a way to end four days of counting birds, because this is what it is really all about, getting out in nature and finding out who you are and what you really love.
Between driving in the car and hiking we traveled approximately 5 miles and counted birds for 2 1/2 hours. Thank You Chris for taking pictures so I could just enjoy the birds!
Birds seen at Catalina State Park on 2-18-13:
- Mourning Dove
- Gila Woodpecker
- Ladder-backed woodpecker
- Black Phoebe
- Rufous-winged sparrow
- Oregon Junco
- Northern Cardinal
- House Finch
- Lesser Goldfinch