Monday, June 6, 2016

A Birder's Pilgrimage

I'm going to tell you a story about a little gray flycatcher that made history.  

The journey was rough, but it was an important one for many birders.  For some time, birders across the US have been waiting for the arrival(or discovery) of the Pine Flycatcher in the United States. 

 This bird looks like every other empid and so it took time for the confirmation to happen.  The Pine Flycatcher lives in the montane forests of Mexico and Central America.  When Dave Stejskal and his wife went camping in a remote part of Arizona's Santa Rita mountains, they discovered a different sounding flycatcher in this little shaded oasis. 

Dave spent a couple days with the experts and went over the calls making sure it was really truly the first ever US record of a Pine Flycatcher. 

The Range map for this bird
When the news came across the internet, birders were a buzz.  For me, I was thrown off.  A Pine Flycatcher?  I pride myself in knowing most of my Mexican birds but somehow this one slipped past my radar! A birder we've met on Las Aventuras, Bruce Berman, asked me "the" question. "Chris, you've birded in Mexico quite a bit.  Had you ever heard about this bird?"  I know it sounds strange, but I hadn't!  Bruce felt relieved that he wasn't the only one who was shocked by a new bird.  It's like saying there are actually unicorns in this world. So like I do with all my new birds, I studied this particular flycatcher and the call!

After the relentless heat, this shaded oasis with a breeze made me want to hang out the entire day! But I knew the heat would continue to rise and we  had to get out of there before it would become intolerable.  Heat stroke is real. 
At first, I didn't know if I would be able to make the trek alone because the conditions were too rough, but near the 11 PM hour that night I received a text from a birder by the name of Jeremy Medina.  And the next thing I knew, we were on the road bright and early 4 hours later!  During the night, I tossed and turned.  Was this a safe decision?  The roads were rough and in remote areas. What if we didn't have cell service?  Water?  Etc etc.  But in the morning, we played it safe and drove carefully on the road. We brought extra water just in case we got stranded.  At one point, we parked and hiked the remainder of the rough road into the wooded glen.  The message here?  Team work.  When we work together, we can achieve anything. 

The 10 foot water tank told us that we had reached our marker.
We were greeted by a male Elegant Trogon calling along the creek. 

A small group of birders met together in almost a religious style ceremony. It struck me that we all made this sacred pilgrimage for a historic bird. There is something very special about the treks we do.  And it cannot be put into words. We watched this amazing flycatcher hop and spin around the trees as if it were a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. 

It was a wonderful group of people who were all very respectful of the bird's space.  Together we observed it collect nesting material. 

A Gila Woodpecker tells everyone to keep it down out there!  The babies were trying to sleep!
Other birds wondered what all the commotion was about:)

There were other gray birds there like the very vocal Plumbeous Vireo below. 

We collected data on the bird and made careful observations for ebird and the ABA Bird Record's Committee.  I need to get an app to record audio.  Instead I've been using my video part on the camera.  I felt like a real tool asking everyone to stay still and quiet while I took a 20 second snippet of the bird calling.  It was important because these birds can only be ID'd by their calls sometimes.  However, I can say that the behavior on this flycatcher was rather distinct from the other similar looking flycatchers that I have observed.  If approved, this flycatcher will be an exciting addition for those who list with ABA as it will become "legit". For me, it was an amazing life bird. 

Pine Flycatcher
What an exhausting and wonderful day out in the field discovering a new bird for the United States! It has been projected that with Global Warming, the state of Arizona will see more Mexican vagrants enter into our state over the next several years.  We are seeing once rare birds like Rufous-capped Warblers, Black-capped Gnatcatchers and Elegant Trogons expand their range northward.  It was just a matter of time before the Pine and Tufted Flycatchers made their way into Arizona. Blue Mockingbirds and Aztec Thrushes have also been reported.  Yes, things are going to get interesting.  Birders have seen this global warming  trend happen for some time now with our bird populations. 

The Flycatcher group is not an easy one, but with practice and study, they are a snap to ID.  For beginning birders, I recommend meeting up with an experienced birder and learn how to distinguish the various behaviors by observation since most of these empids look similar. For example, Gray Flycatcher pumps the tail downward.  The Dusky Flycatcher pumps the tail up.  The Hammond's Flycatcher has ADD as it constantly flicks and ticks:) 

And yes, the life bird list keeps slowly inching up. The Pine Flycatcher makes life bird 716.  Will I make it to 800 by the end of the year?  Who knows?  But I will tell you that the work behind each bird has increased.  Every new addition has a cost both personal and financial. I'm just glad most of us have spouses who understand our addiction to this lifetime of ours.  The desert is getting too hot and that means it's time to cool down elsewhere.  Las Aventuras: Home continues.


  1. WOW! how wondrful for you to have tracked and seen this new bird for the US. Great shots.

  2. Superb post Chris and what an exciting outing. So pleased you caught up with the bird and the photos are wonderful :) A very special "tick" :)

  3. How exciting! I imagine you're right about more new birds coming into the area as climate changes.


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