Birds of a feather

I’m just back from some time away in southeast Arizona looking at birds. I’ve been a birder ever since moving to England in 1987. You grow up in Canada knowing the 15 birds that inhabit your backyard at various times of the year, then suddenly, you’re confronted with birds you have never seen. I bought a birding guide published by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and I was hooked. One time I even met members of the Surrey Wildlife Trust on Wimbledon Common at 3 a.m. We stood in the dark and listened over the next few hours to the dawn chorus, hundreds of birds invisible around us beginning to sing as the sun rose. These days, I get out birding half a dozen times a year, mostly around Toronto, and it’s a great way to leave the stresses of the world behind for a few hours.

The tour in Arizona was run by Wings, an organization founded 35 years ago by Will Russell. As luck would have it, Will was our leader. He not only knew every bird by sight, he also knew all their songs so could tell us what we were about to see. The group was small, only seven, many of whom were far more knowledgable about birds than I am. Among them was Joey Slinger, my long-time friend and former Toronto Star columnist. We shared a room at various places including the Circle Z Ranch and Casa de San Pedro, using those spots as central locations to look for birds in grasslands, wetlands, desert and canyon. All of the other birders were Americans.

During the week we saw about 150 species of which one-third were “life listers” for me. Among the birds I saw for the first time were Lazuli Bunting, Abert’s Towhee, Hepatic Tanager, Gambel’s Quail, Bewick’s Wren, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Townsend’s Solitaire, and Spotted Owl. The owl required clambering up a treacherous canyon path for an hour – and slowly back down again. The weather was perfect and we spent all of our time south of Tucson, often within sight of the Mexican border because many birds either reside or winter in Mexico so that part of Arizona is their northernmost habitat. One amazing morning near Lake Patagonia we had all three bluebirds – Eastern, Mountain, and Western – in the same binoclular field. Even our leader had never before seen such a spectacular gathering.

Travelling that close to the Mexican border, we also saw many members of the Border Patrol. On several occasions we went through highway checkpoints; once an officer stopped to see who we were at the side of the road inspecting a field. Visible for miles high above was an aerostat, a tethered dirigible that uses radar to track the movement of illegals with pinpoint accuracy. Even during a tough economy, Border Protection is a growth industry.

All of the Americans we encountered were universally friendly. We stopped in one small town and were welcomed into the backyard of a house with hummingbird feeders where we saw Violet-crowned and Broad-billed. On the main street, locals on foot spoke to us or called out greetings as they bicycled past. As tight-assed Canadians we have a lot to learn from the more relaxed and always generous Americans about life and how to live it. Plus the birding’s good, too.

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