Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Fan-Tailed Warbler Disaster

Weekend Assignment #172: Talk about a time in which you moved or traveled a significant distance under your own power. That means walking, running, swimming, biking, hiking, and so on -- in some significant way your muscles were involved. As for the distances involved, think miles; we're talking some real effort. It doesn't have to be a marathon or a triathalon (although those would count), just a time when you got to the end of what you were doing feeling tired but possibly triumphant as well.

For years I've been threatening/promising to tell the warbler story; I guess this is the night I actually do it. 20 years ago, shortly after it happened, I started writing about it, but soon stalled out. This is as far as I got:

By Karen Funk Blocher

"Did you hear about the rare bird?"

The man who came up to me at the Tanque Verde Swap Meet that June day must have been someone I'd met at Madera Canyon or Patagonia, but I didn't recognize him.

"Which one?" I asked, casually.

He was balding and thirtyish.

"A rare warbler has been found in Sycamore Canyon, down on the border. It's on the tape."

"The tape," I realized, was the Tucson Audubon Society's Rare Bird Alert number, but I hadn't heard about any rare warbler.

The unknown birder, my husband John and I stood in the Arizona sun amid acres of junk merchandise as we discussed the Mexican rarity. It was a Fan-tailed Warbler, previously seen only about three times in North America. Our informant had seen the bird two days before, having hiked in twice to the place where a red handkerchief tied to a stick marked the rarity's location.

End of fragment.

My handwritten listing for the missing warbler

It being only the fourth occasion on which this species of bird had been seen in the U.S., it wasn't even in my National Geographic field guide. It was in the next edition, which I eventually bought just to have a copy with the warbler in it. But that Saturday in June, 1987, all we had to go on was what we could learn from Tucson Audubon Society. So John and I drove over to their converted house near the U of A, talked to some people, and considered the pros and cons. Sycamore Canyon was about an hour away, a three mile, fairly rugged hike along a rocky creek bed. The bird was two and a half miles in, about half a mile from the Mexico border.

I was a little concerned about the reported ruggedness of the canyon, but not because of the effort. I was worried about my ankles. I've been spraining and breaking them on a regular basis since the first week of 10th grade. I've done it in school, in Guadalajara, in my driveway, and even outside Popeye's. I'll never ski or skate again, not that I was ever good at either. Hiking wasn't so bad, but even with my cheap hiking boots, I was asking for trouble.

Still, it was a rare opportunity, and I had been doing a lot of birdwatching the past year in connection with a book I wanted to write called Critters, and John was up for the adventure. So we went anyway.

A creek bed at Molino Basin on Mount Lemmon

I don't have a picture of Sycamore Canyon. It looked a bit like this, but drier and steeper. We drove down to the trailhead that night, camped out in our van, and set off just after dawn. John carried jugs to water to hydrate us; after all it was June in Arizona. But they got heavy and awkward, and dragging them scraped the plastic and made them leak. John stashed two of them along the way, figuring we could retrieve and drink from them on the way back.

Word was that the bird had a habit of hanging out near the marker until a certain time (7:30 or 8:30 AM, I forget which), and then flying away to parts unknown, or at least inaccessible. I was a little dubious about this. Why would a bird keep a schedule like that? How would it do so? A couple of groups of birders passed us on our hike in, including one in which some guy was talking about "Roger," as in Roger Tory Peterson, author of a famous field guide and apparently an acquaintance of this rather smug birder. We were almost two miles in, but time was passing, and John tried to hurry me along. "If we don't go faster, we'll miss the bird," he said.

"If you make me go faster than I can go," I told him, "I'm liable to sprain my ankle, and then it will take a helicopter to get me out."

"Well, you'll better be careful, then," he said, "because no helicopter is coming, even if you do sprain your ankle."

You know what's coming, right? It happened about two miles in. I twisted my ankle on a rock. It wasn't the worst sprain in the world, though, and we were most of the way there. We decided to keep going. John found me a good dead branch to use as a walking stick. "I've got the stick right here," he said.

"Its name is Paul Revere," I sang back, quoting from Guys and Dolls. We laughed, and resumed our progress. About a quarter mile later, the other ankle went. This sprain was ever so much worse. But we were almost there, and I didn't want to be defeated. After a short rest we continued, struggling along that last quarter mile. The birding group with the braggart was hanging out, hardly paying any attention at all to the bird.

I'm pretty sure I heard it. I may have seen it, for a split second, as it flew away on schedule. But I saw no features, and so could not identify it. It didn't count.

We started the long hike back, me on two sprained ankles. None of the birders who passed us offered sympathy, much less offered to help. I asked one guy to call the video store I worked at, and let them know I wasn't going to make it to work that afternoon. He said he'd call. He didn't.

We ran low on water, with maybe a mile and a half to go. John left me with the last, nearly empty jug and hiked ahead to retrieve one of the stashed ones, or to refill a bottle at the trailhead if need be. He later reported he was hallucinating slightly by the time he got to water.

I struggled along behind. Then there was a fork in the creek bed. I didn't know which way to go, and I didn't want to get lost. So I climbed up on a boulder, and played a tape of bird calls, a canyon wren call that elicited an answering call from a real wren. John did not reappear, and it was well into the afternoon by then. I picked what I thought was the most likely direction and resumed my slow trek out. And hooray! I guessed right. I was reunited with John about an hour later. We reached the trailhead about 7:40 PM if I remember correctly, right around dusk. I'd been in the canyon for fourteen hours.

The podiatrist I went to the next day diagnosed a broken ankle and two sprains. "The sprain is worse than the break," he told me. I was in a soft cast for four weeks. My job in the video store did not allow for sitting down, and they weren't particularly interested in making accommodations. I ended up taking a job with another video store for less money, where I could sit down. But they were larcenous. Even my boss said to watch my pay carefully to make sure I wasn't cheated. (They soon lost one of my paychecks for two weeks.) And the day the cast came off my foot, I was assigned to walk around the four parking lots at Grant and Alvernon, putting flyers on cars. They were advertising a personal appearance by Gumby, even though they knew by then that the Gumby costume had fallen through. They planned instead to use a chicken suit, and try to pass it off as Big Bird.

That's more or less when I decided to go to school to become a travel agent instead. That led to becoming a bookkeeper, which led to becoming an accountant. But it all started with that darn fan-tailed warbler, the bird that got away.



Anonymous said...

very interesting story.

John L. Trapp said...


A very interesting tale of misadventure.