Brutal Birding 101



Here we are, an hour into a slow, tough slog through three feet of cold stream water. I’m traipsing behind Jay Gatlin, who’s as sunny and cheerful as a Yellow Warbler. Ironically and right on cue, the warbler’s “sweet sweet so sweet” melody sails across the silent marsh. Jay, who makes a point of involving the public whenever possible in the work of the US Forest Service, invited me to participate in the annual survey for the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. She’s the wildlife biologist out of the Camino Real office in Penasco and together with wildlife biology technician, Art Abeyta, heads up the surveying team. It’s already 8 a.m., and we haven’t seen nor heard a flycatcher. Three hours to go. Or more.

Okay, it’s incredibly beautiful, with beaver ponds glittering in morning sunlight and herons and red-wingeds flying overhead, but it’s quickly turning into Brutal Birding 101. I’m wearing my husband’s waders with heavy boots provided by the USFS. With each step, my boot sinks into rich marsh muck. Tangles of vegetation entrap my hiking poles and slash against my face. In contrast to me, Art and Jay appear to move through this environment as effortlessly as river otter. My respect for field biologists soars. I just try to keep up.

Last year, we counted possibly three birds. So far this morning, nada. Up ahead of me, Art halts, switches on a recording of the flycatcher’s distinctive “fitz-bew.” We freeze and listen, hoping to hear the return call of a real bird. Nada. Jay scribbles some notes. We trudge on. Up and down embankments, across dry patches, then back into the dense riparian habitat these birds require for nesting. Again, nada. About two hours later, Jay lifts an arm, points south. She’s heard the buzzy call of the flycatcher, but we’re umbrella-ed beneath willows and can’t visually sight the bird. We bushwhack forward and come to a clearing. And there it is: a non-descript little gray bird perched atop a dead snag, checking out his domain. We’re all ecstatic. “Maybe he’s got a lady,” Jay says in a burst of optimism. But this guy is the only one of its kind we will find today.


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