CONFESSIONS OF A FANATICAL BIRDER
By, Bob Duncan
It was an uneventful mid-November day in 1992. The phone call came from my friend Paul who lived in northern Georgia.
A Crescent-chested Warbler, a real mega-tick that strayed from Mexico had been found at Patagonia in SE Arizona.
Paul was – and is – one of the top birders in North America and was listed among the top 5 birders on the American Birding Association list.
He had to have this bird (think the movie The Big Year) to stay competitive. But Paul would not fly and drove all over the US chasing birds.
He once conned some friends into driving to Alaska in winter to list a White-tailed Eagle!
He wanted me to help drive to Arizona to get the bird. “Will we stay in motels?” No. “We’ll camp or sleep in the rented van. “Straight through, non-stop?” Yes.
Count me out, I said. He asked whether I knew anyone locally who might want to go. I responded that I knew a fellow birder here in Gulf Breeze who might.
So I called my friend Bill who, to my surprise, said he’d do it and then cajoled me into going!
Paul drove to my house with another birding fool from Georgia where Bill and I joined them and we took off for the non-stop drive to Arizona.
We arrived at the small, dusty town where other birders were also on their quest for the rare vagrant warbler from Mexico.
We parked the van at the Patagonia town square and there we stayed for three days waiting at the exact spot where the warbler had last been seen.
But it was no show. Other birders came and went and birding intelligence was shared, but nothing that produced the crescent-chest.
Sleeping in the van, camping and eating junk food was compensated for by the fact that this was SE Arizona and the unique birdlife around the site made up somewhat for the discomfort and inconveniences.
Paul had a full time job with the US Fish &Wildlife Service and had to get back by a specific date. One morning during our vigil, another birder came by and said “Did you guys hear about the Dotterel at Point Reyes, California?” “WHAT?!!?” yelled Paul.
Another lifer, another mega-tick! “We’re going guys!” I gulped and protested, saying, “all the way to California??” My protests were overruled.
Paul had to be back at work in three days and we could do it if we drove non-stop. So off we went, arriving at Point Reyes on the coast north of San Francisco after another marathon drive.
In fewer than 10 minutes we spotted the Dotterel in the field where it had been reported along with a bonus Pacific Golden Plover.
Then Paul declared, “OK, let’s drive back to Patagonia for the warbler.” And here we were at a famous National Seashore and birding site, ready to leave after ten minutes!
Paul wanted to head immediately back for the warbler, but I insisted that it would only take a few minutes to drive down to the beach and log in the gulls we could only see as specks from the high bluffs.
Bill had never seen Heerman’s, Western, Glaucous-winged and other Pacific gulls for his life list, and within just a few minutes of driving down to the shore, he bagged several lifers before we headed back to Arizona.
We arrived at Patagonia late that afternoon and Paul said if we didn’t get the bird by 11 a.m. the next morning we would have to start back.
A dreaded deadline! Morning came and the long wait dragged on. Around 10:30 I wandered off from the “spot” when I heard a yell, “Bob, come quick!” The Warbler!
Yes, it was there, complete with its bright yellow breast topped with a crescent of deep orange. We all saw it well with only minutes to spare before the 11 a.m. deadline when we would have had to abandon the chase!
Persistence. Maybe that’s one reason Paul is one of the top birders in North America.
….And then there was the time birding friends of mine and I were running a Big Day in Alabama, going for the state record and my friend rented a convertible….. ahh, but that’s another story.