This will be the last and final installment of a birding trip to the American Southwest. It’s a trip in which I (and my wife, too) will hopefully find a California Condor. And I swear I will get to the condor part of this expedition soon, but first I have to wrap up last week’s story. When I left off, a stranger named “Frank” had led my wife and I down an unmarked trail into a remote area of Florida Canyon (no relation to the Sunshine State). Don’t get the wrong idea; Frank didn’t kidnap us. He was helping us find the rare and really beautiful Rufous-capped Warbler. But then Frank left us on our own, and this is where the exciting story continues.
To be honest, until a few days ago, I wasn’t even familiar with Rufous-capped Warblers (which are normally found in Mexico). While in the desert, I was simply hoping to see roadrunners, Cactus Wrens and other such birds that Arizona is noted for. But then I saw a photo of these gorgeous warblers. With their olive bodies, bright yellow chests and striking chestnut heads, Rufous-capped Warblers are unlike any warblers I see on Cape Cod. I had to go for it.
After Frank left us by ourselves, we just stood around wondering what to do next. Should I try to attract the bird with squeaks and whistles, or just sit and hope it showed up on its own? While these ideas were rotating around in my head, I heard my wife say the phrase that was becoming commonplace on this trip, “I think I see it.” I looked at her with a smirk and said, “No way.” She replied, “Way,” and pointed to a mesquite tree five feet in front of me. Through the branches I could see a small bird with an upturned tail. I quickly announced that it was a wren. Then I refocused my binoculars and saw the “wren” also had an olive body, bright yellow chest and a striking chestnut head. OMG! For the second time in two days my wife had found the rare bird that everyone else was looking for (and it was starting to bug me). Putting my envy aside for a second, I followed the bird across a dry streambed and watched it disappear into the thickets. As I waited for the little bird to reappear, I heard someone coming. It was Frank. We told him the news and he assured us that if we were patient the warbler would most certainly come out of hiding. But just as the words were out of his mouth a Sharp-shinned Hawk came screaming down the riverbed, causing all of the other birds to scatter. Darn sharpie. Frank and Katey (another birder who had just arrived) decided to wait it out, but it was time for us to push north. We had condors to find and they were a long drive from Florida Canyon. BTW: According to Katey’s birding post, she never did see the warbler. That means my wife had once again scooped the “real” birders (and I had to listen to her yap about it for the rest of the trip).
For years I have told people that the best place to see California Condors is along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. But there was only one problem with my information: the big birds visit the South Rim in the summer, not in February. Oops. We were headed to the wrong place. We should have been driving to their wintering grounds, the Vermilion Cliffs. That’s swell, but where the heck are the Vermilion Cliffs? A check of the map told me that the Cliffs were three hours farther north. We got back in the car.
The closest town to the Vermilion Cliffs is Page. Page is a community that sprang up when the controversial Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell were constructed. The divisive dam aside, the area around Page is super-gorgeous. We were only there a short time, but we managed to take a trillion photos of the Colorado River’s renowned Horseshoe Bend. We also stopped at a shopping area called the Dam Plaza. We didn’t need anything there, but I enjoyed yelling, “Dam Plaza,” over and over and over.
Judging from the map, the road (Rt. 89A) from Page to the Vermilion Cliffs is long, deserted and boring. It was indeed deserted – I think we saw two other cars on the entire drive – but it was far from boring. There were beautiful red rocks, massive escarpments and vistas to enjoy in every direction. With one eye on the scenery and the other on the GPS (and neither on the road), I kept track of the miles. The closer we got to the Cliffs the harder I searched for condors. My wife had beaten me to the last two rare birds and I was determined not to come in second place this time. With only three miles to go, I looked over and saw that she was focused on her iPad; I knew I had the edge. At that instant, she looked up and said, “I think I see it.” (No, not again!) She told me to pull over. She claimed to have seen a condor flying just above the car. I hit the brakes, jumped out and looked around. There was not a single condor to be seen…there were ten of them. Gasp! Circling just above our heads were ten very rare California Condors. What a sight. Yes, I had once again lost to my wife’s spotting skills, but at that point I didn’t care. I was far too busy enjoying the moment, and what a wonderful moment it was…well worth coming in second place.
For the next hour we watched the massive birds circle and land on the top of the brilliant Vermilion Cliffs. A few years ago North America’s largest bird was nearly gone forever. Now I was watching them flying free and wild. Seeing condors on our last day was the perfect ending to a very rewarding trip. It was even better than the Dam Plaza, and that’s saying something.