Chase Day, Fan-tailed Warbler

棕扇尾鶯Fan-tailed Warbler

Fan-tailed Warbler (Photo credit: Hiyashi Haka)

IT WAS THE WORST, IT WAS THE BEST

August 17, 2007 began as a normal day—for a birder. I sat by the window with breakfast and binoculars. Opened up my laptop, went to check the listserv for the latest bird sightings. I perused the Texas listserv. There was a report of the usual migrating August peeps on the beach in Galveston. Dribbles of warblers here and there, expected. Migrating hawks headed south, expected. Fan-tailed warbler. WHAT? A fan-tailed warbler! WHERE? Pine Canyon. It took me a quick few minutes to determine Pine Canyon was in Big Bend National Park. Only nine hours away! Doable.

When a rarity appears outside of a nine-hour sphere, I hesitate making the drive. Okay, maybe not for long but at least I contemplate it more. Within nine hours? No question—had to go.

By 9 a.m., four of us had a plan. Wait for a second report. Have gear ready for a road trip. The consensus? Leave at 8 p.m. and arrive at trailhead just before sunup. We considered earlier but an unknown dirt road and the need to see where our feet land (rattlesnake territory) made it wise to wait for daylight. 

The Big Bend National Park website provided further information. The words “steep” and “rocky” left us undaunted. We’d survived more than 25 grueling switchbacks on Pinnacles Trail to reach Boot Springs for birding. Some of us had done it more than once. We reasoned Pine Canyon Trail could be no worse.

Our timetable? Hike up, see the bird by noon, return to car, celebrate in the air-conditioned restaurant at Chisos Basin, then bird other locations within the park before crashing satisfied and exhausted at the lodge.

After driving eight hours across Texas, we reached our first real challenge—thirty minutes of driving a road suggested for high-clearance vehicles. The dips and rocks made it iffy for our NOT-high-clearance vehicle. But we’d seen worse.

Having driven through the night, we arrived behind two other cars. Temperatures approached 80 degrees at the trailhead. It could have been worse. 

We’d read there was a 1.5-mile hike on the desert floor before the trail steepened. We knew the remaining two miles had an elevation gain of almost 1,000 feet. We’d heard the narrow gravel and dirt path ended at the canyon waterfall—our final destination where a life bird awaited.

We donned our packs filled with water and snacks. As the sun came up, birds along the desert floor distracted us. The phrase “keep moving” was pitched out more than once. 

After negotiating the rocks of dry streambeds, the shade of oaks and junipers were welcomed. We saw that every further step would be UP—at what seemed to be a 90-degree angle. The further we hiked, the worse it became. I couldn’t take my eyes off the trail. Rocks jutted out. Gravel patches created a slip-n-slide. The challenge did not allow a quick pace. 

Several stops to catch my breath gave me time to appreciate the flight of a migrating butterfly, the buzz of a hummer zipping by and the flecks of sparkle in the canyon rocks.

As the trail wound further into the canyon, water gurgled alongside us but hidden from our view among boulders the size of stately mansions. We trudged our way through the morning hours until we heard birders talking above us. Our pace quickened. We were close.

As I reached a small clearing on level ground, I sighed. Surrounded by towering cliffs, it was an oasis of cool, moist air and moss-dotted rocks. Water splashed over a two-story wall of reddish rock. I stepped closer and cool water misted my sweaty arms. The small stream disappeared under rock ledge. 

Then I noticed the birders who’d arrived before us were all casually sitting around the area. Not a good sign. We asked the usual question when arriving at a reported rarity location, “Has it been seen?” The response was not what we wanted. Not seen all morning by anyone. 

Our shoulders slumped. We hadn’t climbed this far to not see our target, had we? I ignored the negative voice. Missing a rarity happens but I never believe it’s a reality until the sun sets on a full day of searching. Even then, there’s always tomorrow.

I slipped off my backpack. Time to sit. Time for a snack. Time for a drink. Time to introduce ourselves to those we didn’t recognize. Time to catch up with those we’d seen during previous chases. Time to admire the waterfall. We had time to appreciate the rustling foliage protecting us from the sun’s heat. Time to spread out. Time to search the trees nearby. Time to read a book, if I’d carried one. Time to greet more birders as they huffed and buffed into the area. Four hours later more than 30 of us had time. 

And then it happened. 

Someone reported hearing a song. The right song. A Fan-tailed warbler song. Off to our right in a dense forested area. Conversation ended. Backpacks and lunches were left behind. The throng of birders moved to a line of trees with binoculars at the ready. The song repeated. There was a collective sigh of relief. The Fan-tailed hadn’t disappeared, hadn’t dashed our hopes.

Keen eyes went to work. We scoured the canyon side for any sign of movement. And, then I spotted movement in the biggest juniper before us. Right side, horizontal branch, midway up, 3 o’clock. Right smack dab in the darkest shadows of the densest limb. No one but me got on it. No one else saw it spread its tail. No one saw it flip from right profile to left profile. No one but me. 

The worst possible moment when standing with a group of eager birders—three of them with a stake in your ride home, one of them in possession of the car keys.For the next few seconds, I gave further directions but no one eeeewed or aaaahed—a sure sign no one was seeing it. When the warbler flew, there was a resounding, “oooooohhhh.” Everyone saw it disappear into deeper foliage. Ugh. It came back out of hiding.There. One of my car companions said, “Got it.” Whew. 

Satisfied with our looks, the two of us gave further direction for our companions. Within a few seconds they’d seen it too. Success. Relief. After less than a minute, the bird flew off. Elation. High fives. Lifer on lists. The worst was over. 

Except for the 4-mile trek, 1.5 of it on the desert floor in more than 95-degree heat. But at least it was downhill.
Fan-tailed Warbler - Mexico 12_001_S4E7277

Fan-tailed Warbler  (Photo credit: fveronesi1)

The After Shot

Terry Ferguson, Jerri Kerr, Charley Amos, me, Buck Buchanan (Terry met us from another starting point)

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