The Power of a Bird

Friday, June 3rd
No, I’m not talking about the power of songbirds that can fly from one polar tip to the other during migration, strong and beautiful as they are.  I’m talking about the magnetic pull a bird can have on a person’s psyche. 

Part of the pull that got me out of bed at 2 a.m. was the fact that this was a bird I’ve been wanting to see ever since I caught sight of its picture in a field guide. The AZTEC THRUSH lives in Mexico - a neotropical bird that I had been hoping would join some of the other Mexican species that have begun to visit southeastern Arizona, even if for a few days.

Not a highly colorful bird like the Painted Bunting or many other neotropical birds, the Aztec Thrush’s head, breast and upper back are dark brown (think dark chocolate); its under belly appears white and its black wings are touched with white. It’s a complex design and interesting color pattern. Think “Aztec”.

For the past three days, this rarity had been viewed at Madera Canyon, way up on the Carrie Nation Mine Trail and I really wanted to see this bird first hand — a Life Bird. So, on Thursday, I contacted birder friends, Steve and Joan Hosmer, to see if they had driven south to see this Mexican rarity and, if not, that I’d welcome the chance to join them.  

Being an early riser takes on new meaning when you roll out of bed at 2 a.m. Even eating breakfast at that hour seems strange. But I managed to gather myself and my gear (strong hiking boots, two walking poles, much water and some carbs) to meet Steve and Joan at our appointed place about a 30-minute drive from the house. They were already there and live even farther away than I.

With a prompt 3:30 a.m. departure from the Phoenix area, we arrived at the Carrie Nation Trailhead to begin birding at 5:47 a.m.  Driving up to the end of the paved road through Madera Canyon to this point we had already observed Western Wood-Pewee, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and 15 Wild Turkey.

Back in my hiking days, I had explored this trail but had never gone as far as we would today. Birding on flat desert is not the best conditioning preparation for this 1.6-mile hike up 1100 vertical feet over a rocky trail. The elevation at our starting point was 5500’. Hopefully, a bird deserving of its name would make this tough hike (for me) worthwhile. 

AZTEC THRUSH - internet photo ©️Pete Morris

It took the three of us 90 minutes to reach the other birders already standing and waiting for our Anticipated Bird. With our arrival the group now totaled 13 birders. 

At the top, I was fascinated by the butterflies, “Arizona Sisters”; the beetles, that looked like moths flying in the sunlight over the water; the sound and sight of the Greater Pewee; the presence of the Elegant Trogan and other birds. I tried to imagine the approach the Aztec Thrush would take in coming to the water. Birds rarely fly directly to their destination but check it out with a careful approach. American Robins and other birds not intimidated by our presence showed me the various routes that might be taken. With so many sets of birder-trained eyes on site, I had no doubt that IF our bird was around, it would be spotted.

Arizona Sisters butterfly

Greater Pewee in take-off mode; note the wide-based orange lower bill

Used this Robin in the wet spot to prepare my camera settings for The Anticipated Bird

As time passed, the group of onlookers grew to 30.  As hours passed, the group grew smaller again.

A handful of us continued to hang in there and began socializing a bit, especially with the young man “on a mission”. This was his fourth attempt at seeing the Aztec Thrush. Filming birds was his intent, but today he filmed flying beetles that looked very much like moths to me. Sleeping in his car and traveling, he meets birders, interviews them in his attempt to make connections between education and conservation in the birding community including the use of technology. 
His name is Christian Hagenlocher and he’s working on an evolving mission called The Birding Project.  To see more about Christian and his goal, check out his web site at:

After four hours of waiting for the bird and having Christian go out (unsuccessfully) on explorations to flush it from the wash or find it elsewhere, Steve and Joan and I opted for the descent. We had given our effort, enjoyed the wonderful coolness of the higher elevation (6600’) and the camaraderie of other birders. Of our 7.5 hours of birding the Carrie Nation trail, 3.5 hours of that involved the hike up and down (took me two hours to come down on creaky knees).  

Steve & Joan Hosmer as we begin the descent. Note how the trail disappears "downhill"
Earlier in the week, another birder had photographed another rare migrant along this trail — Golden-winged Warbler — but it, too, had probably passed through and was gone. Frankly, when I was hiking, I wasn’t looking at birds. The rocks, the scree, the place to put my foot were all-consuming. Thanks to Steve’s strong arm, I stepped over rocks that his long legs could pass over in one step whereas I would need to work my way around.

During our descent, we saw a GRACE’S WARBLER scratching around on the ground. Usually, it’s found high in the trees and here it was at our feet. Steve managed a good photo before it flew.

Grace's Warbler -- Photo by Steve Hosmer

All in all, of course I was disappointed in not finding the rare Aztec Thrush, but the experience was memorable.

That’s the way it often goes out in the field.

Since the Aztec Thrush has not been reported since our visit, our group of birders has the dubious distinction of confirming its absence at that particular location.

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