Birding In The National Parks: Enduring The Heat To Bird In Saguaro National Park And Chiricahua National Monument

No self-respecting birder would fly across the country to look for birds in the desert Southwest in August's high heat without diligently preparing. Kirby Adams photo.

I was all set to regale you with stories and video of adorable Piping Plover chicks from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore this week, but I seem to be running out of time. By the time you read this, I’ll be on a plane to Tucson, ultimately to do some birding in Saguaro National Park and Chiricahua National Monument. Thus, you’re stuck with a behind scenes look at how one birder prepares for a trip to a never-before-visited destination.

Preparation

The Southwest deserts are the last major biome of North Amercia I have yet to visit as a birder. That means my preparation for this trip has been intense. I liken it to studying for a big exam, though I believe I put more sincere effort into this than I did for any test in college.

I’ve certainly approached it with less wine, women, and song.

The exam is daunting. I’ve come up with a list of 106 birds that I have never seen before that I have at least a 25 percent chance of seeing in my brief, five-day visit. That’s an awful lot of new sights and sounds to my senses that have tasted nothing but eastern birds since last November.

I’ve got my field guides and recordings and have been dutifully studying those 106 birds. When I walk into a Saguaro forest at dawn, I want to immediately recognize what I see and hear, because the birds are going to be fast and furious. Avian activity peaks around sunrise and trails off long before noon in the hot desert.

I began with a master list of roughly 250 birds likely to be seen with the 106 potential lifers highlighted in orange. From that I created six checklists of birds for each of the major habitats I’ll be visiting: wetlands, desert scrub, grassland, foothills and lower canyon scrub, oak-pine-juniper forest, and coniferous forest.

I’ve also needed to make some slight adjustments for the differences between Chiricahua National Monument and Saguaro National Park. Saguaro is a Sonoran Desert ecosystem, while Chiricahua is more representative of the Chihuahuan Desert. The noticeable differences in plant life lead to some subtle, but significant differences in bird frequency and diversity.

Using data from eBird and information from regional guidebooks, I assign every potential life-bird a likelihood percentage of being found on my trip. My algorithm spit out 48 as the likely number of lifers I’ll accumulate, so I’m being optimistic and setting 50 as my goal.

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A Gila Woodpecker. NPS photo.

There’s no particular benefit to this exercise beyond my love of lists, numbers, and statistics. If I have 49 lifers on my last day there, I may spend the last hours watching a single Gila Woodpecker excavate a nest cavity in a Saguaro rather than chase number 50.

Numbers are fun, but it’s the unquantifiable experience of nature that I love most about birding. All the bird lists go into a binder along with maps, tips gleaned from websites, and lodging and rental car information. This binder will not leave my possession during the plane trip.

Speaking of the plane trip…

Packing For The Flight

I love the physical act of flying, but detest the packing part. For this trip, my wife and I will be taking our spotting scope with tripod, two binoculars, two cameras, and a laptop. The tripod is the only item I’ll be willing to put in our checked bag. All of the glass stays with me.

Luckily, I have a padded backpack from Lowepro that holds the scope and other essentials snugly. The rest of the glass goes in a second carry-on bag. With all due respect to baggage handlers, you should not put anything in checked luggage that you don’t want dropped from great height, trampled, or generally abused. It’s just the nature of quickly moving bags from place to place.

The second reason for keeping the important stuff with me is that with a short layover en route to Arizona, I’m concerned the checked bag might not make it there on the same plane I’m on. I can live without underwear. I cannot live without binoculars.

Be Prepared

We’re renting a car in Arizona to do some driving all over the southeastern part of the state. While there, we’ll be engaging in some odd behavior, like cruising roads at 20 mph after sunset looking for rattlesnakes. Chances are we’ll attract the attention of the authorities at some point, so it’s a good idea to have our government-issued identification ready.

I learned last fall in south Texas that I may get particular attention near the Mexican border. I’m not Hispanic, but apparently after a lot of birding in the sun and misadventures in the field, I resemble someone who may have skirted the border illegally. At a checkpoint south of San Antonio our car was targeted for some special treatment. My wife was driving, and the Border Patrol agent had no interest in talking to her, but I got the flashlight-in-my-face grilling with questions. Explaining that we were bird-watching in the Rio Grande Valley got me questions about what kind of birds we saw.

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Safely packing cameras and other glass is key to arriving with gear intact. Kirby Adams photo.

This culminated with the question, “What’s the technical term for bird-watching?”

That was a tough one, because there really is no such term. I said as much and the man, who suddenly seemed much larger, didn’t like that answer.

Finally, I said, “Oh, you want me to say ‘ornithology!’ Turns out that was the magical word that sent us on our way. I wanted to explain to the gentleman that there is a huge difference between ornithology (the scientific study of birds) and birding (the hobby of observing and counting birds), but Sarah drove away before I could launch into that lecture. It’s probably for the best.

You never know what’s going to happen on these birding adventures. I fully expect to be injured more than once and likely come near to be being arrested at least once. But given my extensive preparation, I should have no need to burden any search and rescue teams, and I should be able to easily identify every bird I see or hear. Most importantly, I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.

See you in Saguaro!

Comments

Some great advice! Your pre-trip preparations to help ID your hoped-for birds are also very smart. Both of your destinations are great parks, although my most recent visits were in late January, so a different season for birds. Enjoy :-)

Yeah, August is the birders' choice for SEAZ for those Mexican birds that overshoot their summering grounds in the Sierra Madre, but there's a nifty suite of Rocky Mountain birds there in the winter, so I'll have to make that trip sometime. The weather would certainly be more up my alley!