Thirty-Five Feet of Twitchers

Thirty-Five Feet of Twitchers

Our party is comprised of six people: Five-foot seven, five-foot eight, six-foot, six-foot two, six-foot four and six-foot six; all of that equals = 35 feet and then some.

In Great Britain people who are bird watchers are often times called “Twitchers.” I suspect it sounds a bit derogatory?

I find myself surrounded by my friends and kindred, and they are all avid birders. Patagonia Lake is our destination (in the deep south of Arizona). I’ve been there before with poor results. I don’t particularly want to return to a place that seemed to hold little promise. It is mid-morning, and we won’t get there until early afternoon, a depressing time to try and go birding. Birding is best in the early morn and late afternoon. They are my friends and kindred, so I act as though we are going birding.

My newfound friend John Swegman is armed and dangerous with serious photography equipment, stuff that looks like the AK47s of the telephoto world. He has traveled the world and also just returned from South America -identifying 34 species of hummingbirds. Together with my Uncle Mike (both of these fellows are real-life archaeologists),  they plan to set us off on a birding “Journey of Discovery,” and I’m skeptical.

Patagonia Lake is a place that offers refuge to a bird that is normally seen in Central America and in Mexico. On rare occasion it travels an incredibly thin corridor extending into the United States that is 20 miles wide and 30 miles long – that is the specific range of an elusive bird called the Elegant Trogan.

The year prior my wife and I made some Audubon news 20miles north of Patagonia. We identified a bird called the Streak Backed Oriole, somewhat of a rarity in these parts. We are closet birders and are uncomfortable in making a fuss about it. I discreetly hide my Nikon binoculars in the small of my back, hidden under my jacket. I elect not to afford a pair of expensive Swarovski binoculars, but will immediately pull off the road to inquire when I see someone who has a pair.

Patagonia Lake is a beautiful park about 20 miles north of the border, and it offers camping, boating, birding and hiking. We arrive and take to the trails that wind through the arroyos and bottom land, hoping to see some interesting birds. On our list are Vermillion Flycatchers,Neotropic Cormorants,Hepatic Tanager, Green-Tailed Tohee, and the amazing and ever-elusive Elegant Trogan.

Vermillion Flycatcher

As we hike down the well-worn “twitchers trail,” I feel the need to get off the beaten path and wander over a far hill that is covered with all manner of prickly cactus. Within a few minutes, I’m hiking a completely different course than my birding companions. It’s all rocks and cactus and no birds, so I follow the ravines to get back to my friends.

As I arrive, they all seem to be alarmed and in crouched positions. They seem frozen and their movement is limited, they signal me with their heads and eyes — all a-twitchin’! They have suddenly been transformed into “Twitchers”! I cast off yonder and see a dark silhouette of a parrot-shaped bird on a low-hanging limb. My friends continuing their twitchin’, and I reposition myself so I can get a better view. Sweet mercy, it’s the bird that they have coveted, the Elegant Trogan! It is within 20 meters of them, and nobody knows what to do, what to do, what to do? Stand still? Back up? Move forward? Crouch down?

Elegant TroganIt is a the male of the species, and it is as colorful as any parrot that graces this earth. Ever vigilant, John raises his camera, zooms a lens or two and captures an image of this elusive avian. We breathe a sigh of relief because we know we have created confirmation of the sighting.

Now that we have this confirmation, we can decide our next move. We decide to move forward toward the bird … ever so slowly. Step by step, we play our hand, with a devil-may-care attitude we move forward, and within a few minutes we are within spitting distance of the bird. We are so close that John’s fancy telephoto lens can no longer focus at that close of range. The bird seems completely content to bask in the sunlight that is peeking through the shadowy bottom lands. The bird is oblivious to our intrusion into his world. We have the feeling that it may well perch on our shoulders if it had a hankerin’.

Off in the distance we hear other birders headed down the path. We want to share our prized birding experience, so we “twitch” them into realizing the prize at hand. They

slowly and respectfully bring their tripods to the ground and begin to document the bird at Patagonia Lake.

We have had our fill, but it is hard to leave behind a good bird sighting. Alas, we back away and head down the path. To our amazement, the Elegant Trogan follows us, branch to branch, down the path almost within arm’s reach, inexplicable. Maybe the bird is employed by the Arizona Tourism Department?

Our birding trip to Patagonia Lake was a sensory overload, and we couldn’t have had a greater adventure. At a time when governmental budgetary constraints leave many natural resources and state parks in question, we have gladly left our tourism dollars at every place possible, and we have been well rewarded. The experience could not have been replicated. A Big Thanks to the fine folks of Arizona who keep alive the recreational experience that can be found in such limited places on this planet!

Bill Keitel

photo credits John Swegman

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