It has been a long day of birding all over southeast Arizona with my friend, Celeste. We have already birded the upper canyon of Madera, making a stop at the Santa Rita Lodge where we saw dozens of hummingbirds feeding at the numerous hummingbird feeders. With the sunlight slipping beyond the southern ridge of the canyon we made our way down the road to the Proctor Trailhead. It is about 5 p.m. when we pull into the empty parking lot. The sinking sun is casting long lavender shadows over the flaxen desert grasses. Behind us the Santa Rita Mountains loom large and purple-green spattered with rocky outcroppings of gold, amber and gray. Here the desert landscape rises in a gentle slope to meet the mountains. There is such a short transition zone, and then you are enveloped in a whole new habitat. The Proctor Trail leads right along this transition zone. Celeste and I get out of the car, don our binoculars and cameras, and start down the trail.
Usually I am already seeing birds by the trailhead, but tonight it is quiet save for a pair of ravens that fly out of the canyon and over our heads. I notice that the mesquite that was burned from a fire a few years ago has already started to grow back. Since this is Celeste’s first time in the canyon, I am so hoping that we will find something wonderful to see. The trail winds down through cactus, mesquite and acacia toward Madera Creek. As we walk along we can see Green Valley and the Sierrita Mountains beyond. A blunt point can be seen sticking up on the horizon. It is Baboquivari Peak in the Baboquivari Mountains over 50 miles away! The trail soon disappears between thick walls of brush, some of which is desert hackberry ripe with fruit. I am ahead of Celeste now as we walk quietly looking for birds. Something red flies across the path in front of us, but it is so fast that we are unsure of what it was. I am thinking cardinal since I know they can been seen in this area, but Summer Tanager or Hepatic Tanager are not out of the question, though they are usually seen farther up the canyon. I know it was not a Pyrrhuloxia because it was red all over.
I am about 10 paces ahead of Celeste now eagerly looking for the break in the brush that will lead down to the edge of the creek which we can hear tumbling over the rocks beyond the hackberry bushes. As I am searching high and low and being very quiet, I suddenly hear Celeste whispering loud and frantic, “Kathie! Kathie! KATHIE!” And though she never raises her voice, I can hear the urgency in it. I look back up the trail towards her and she is signaling me with her hand to come back up near her. As a good birder, I am assuming she is seeing some spectacular bird, so I walk quickly but quietly up the trail. I do not want to scare the “bird” away! I have barely reached her back when suddenly a large, black, fur covered creature bolts from the bushes and runs up the trail we have just walked down and turns the corner towards the parking lot!
Celeste and I are both standing there with our mouths agape, hardly believing what we just saw. A black bear! Here in Madera Canyon! I have never seen one here before. I cannot tell you what Celeste is thinking, but I am wondering if there are any more bears in the bushes. And I am wondering what we should do now. I should tell you that for 10 years Celeste was a Safari Guide in Africa, so, though she is petite in body and stature, she is not the least bit intimidated by this bear! Celeste and I have grabbed onto each other in excitement and awe. We feel so privilege to have seen such a wild animal so close, yet we do not want to be foolish. We suddenly realize that we are still talking in whispers, and while being quiet is a great way to see birds, it’s not such a safe strategy in bear country! So, as we walk further down the path towards the creek we start talking loudly and excitedly about the bear and what we should do next. I am torn between wanting to show Celeste the rest of the trail, yet I am concerned about encountering more bears.
At this point we have reached Proctor Road. Proctor Road is a dirt road that leads in from Madera Canyon, crosses the creek, and follows the ridge along the base of the mountains into open range and, I believe, other birding hotspots. However, the paved trail we are walking on crosses Proctor Road and winds up though a mesquite bosque and crosses over the creek in a loop over a little bridge. While I want to show Celeste the trail, I do not want to be stupid. As Celeste stands beside me slapping away at mosquitoes my mind is suddenly made up. It’s time to call it a day and head back to the parking lot. However, we decide not to follow the bear back on the trail that we just walked down. Instead, we walk out on the dirt road which is much wider and more open. When we reach the paved road we circle back to the parking lot and our car.
As we get in the car and start to pull out of the parking lot the sun is just setting behind the western mountains. The sunset is spectacular, and Celeste wants a picture. She points out how perfect it would be with that agave blossom in the foreground. I agree, so, I put the car in park and we roll down the window to get the perfect shot. As we finally drive out of the parking lot we start to see raptors on all of the utility poles along White House Canyon Road. We try and try to identify them, but the light is so low now and all the birds are backlit, so they are little more than silhouettes! Then, when they fly off the poles, they do not rise into the sky to give us a better view. Oh no, they swoop down low over the grass and disappear into the scrub! Oh well, we no longer care. We have had a wonderful day that has ended with more birds and a multi-colored sunset to boot!
Though we lament the fact that we did not get any pictures of the bear, we realize that it all happened so quickly that there was no time to react. It is the topic of conversation all the way home. After I drop Celeste off I head back to my house, exhausted but extremely happy. But in my mind all night long, all I can see is a black bear butt and the tan color of its foot pads as it ran away from us up the Proctor Trail! Now THAT’s a birding adventure that I will never forget!