Red-faced Warblers, Donkeys, and Frustration

Anna and I drove out to Arizona to work with cuckoos along the Lower Colorado River, in early June of 2010. This was my first trip to the Southwestern US and all the birds were new and exciting. Our very first block of four days off work we drove over to Southeast Arizona, a place I had been wanting to visit my whole life. Anna and I both got loads of lifers during the weekend and considering we had never been there before and had no idea what to expect, really did well even with a few species I didn’t think we would see. Anyhow, one of the highlights of that trip was seeing our lifer Red-faced Warbler in Scheelite Canyon, which was otherwise very quiet as far as bird activity was concerned. Here is the photo I managed to get of the bird. This was with my old, kinda-crappy Olympus e500.

Red-faced Warbler….?? (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

As you can see, this horrendous photo was the best I managed to get before the bird was gone. Between being in a state of shock after finding one of my most-wanted lifers of the trip and therefore not being able to operate the camera properly combined with bad luck, this was all I got –  blurry branches with a red blob. Anna also managed to get one shot of the bird before it flew off……

Distant Red-faced Warbler (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

Anna’s photo was at least in focus, but the bird was very far away. Two people with two cameras versus one little bird and the bird won. Everything was ok though, at least we saw the bird well and I knew we would come back someday.

Luckily ‘someday’ ended up being the very next summer; one year and one month later. Anna and I were working down along the Colorado River again so the two of us, plus two friends of ours went to Southeast Arizona for a long weekend. Our goals were to find Anna and me some target birds we missed on our previous trip, as well as find as many species as possible since almost all of them could be lifers for our friends, Mark and Chris. We managed to go the first two days without seeing a Red-faced Warbler anywhere, but I told Mark and Chris that it would be ok, we would find one in Scheelite Canyon….at least we did last year. Well we went to Scheelite Canyon on the morning of July 30th and after two hours of searching for Spotted Owls and Red-faced Warblers, came up empty-handed on both targets and began walking back to the car. Then out of nowhere we spotted a Red-faced Warbler! This was the moment for Anna and I to get a better picture than last year, we even had brand new cameras that were 10 times better and faster than our old ones, and lenses with much more magnification. Sadly, before  we had a chance to get in a good position to get a picture of the bird, it flew off and went really far away. We thought we probably blew our chance at getting a photo of Red-faced Warbler.

Later in the trip, we stayed in Mount Lemmon for a night. Mount Lemmon is a very popular skiing location just outside of Tucson, but during the summer months is a ghost town at 9,000 feet above sea level. Needless to say, we couldn’t find anywhere to get breakfast and couldn’t even find someone walking around the town to ask. Despite how much we all knew Chris was gonna have a hard time focusing on birds without a proper meal we decided to give up on trying to find food and just go birding. As with most places in Southeast Arizona, the birding there was great and that morning we went hiking in search of whatever we could find, but mainly Virginia’s Warblers.

On one particular trail, we encountered an odd sight: As we rounded a corner in the trail, a donkey wearing the donkey equivalent of North Face hiking gear was walking down the path, towards us. Following the donkey was a woman, also wearing expensive hiking gear and apparently just out, taking her pet donkey for a walk at the very top of Mount Lemmon. I figured we would all wave, say good morning and then go our separate ways, forever curious about what we just saw, but no…the donkey lady was a talker. So, the five of us stood there and talked for a few minutes as the donkey ate all the grass and other tasty vegetation within reach. Somewhere in the middle of this lady explaining to us about her hiking adventures with this donkey, I started to get antsy. I am certainly the kind of person that enjoys having conversations with people, especially concerning interesting topics like having donkeys as hiking partners, but we  had 4 days off work and a crap-load of birds left to see.

I started half paying attention/half birding and noticed a few Pygmy Nuthatches (would be lifers for Chris) and then also spotted something small and gray, with a red head flitting around in the trees. Then I spotted another one. Soon I could see 6 Red-faced Warblers foraging in the trees alongside Pygmy Nuthatches and Mountain Chickadees! While trying to alert Chris, Mark, and Anna to the birds and simultaneously also trying to pretend to care about whatever this lady was still going on about regarding her donkey and how great it is, since it will eat anything and can carry all her stuff.

I quickly found a break in the conversation and went for it. Chris followed me shortly and then Mark and Anna. Both Anna and I found our own individual Red-faced Warbler to follow and try to get shots of. We were sure to get a good photo now. One bird could get away from us, but there was no way we would walk away from this without getting a better photo than the previous year with this many birds around. Somehow the best I could do was end up with the following photo. The bird I followed was fluttering all over, and going from way up in trees and in the sun, to down low in the shrubs and in heavy shadows.

A second attempt at a Red-faced Warbler. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

This time you can at least see (mainly if you squint your eyes) that I took a picture of a real Red-faced Warbler. Too bad it is horribly out of focus and overall really terrible. Then Anna walked over and showed me the photo below – almost a mirror image of my gruesome shot, but really good, crisp, clear and in-focus!

Red-faced Warbler (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

All the while, the lady stood down the hill and on the trail, watching the four of us chase birds around while her donkey ate some grass. Good thing no one else came along cause the six of us looked nuts. Those were the last Red-faced Warblers we saw on the trip, so I guess I will have to try for a better picture when I come back to Southeast Arizona some day. In the meantime, Anna took a beautiful photo that really captures the bird well!