One of the wonderful things about birding is that you don’t have to go anywhere to do it. Birding is not hiking. Birding and hiking are super compatible — I do it at least once a week – but they’re not the same thing. Once people, especially kids, get on a trail, they are usually determined to go somewhere. But when you’re birding, you don’t have to go somewhere. Birds fly. So, why not chill out and wait for the birds to come to you?
Two of the programs from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that take advantage of not going anywhere are Project FeederWatch and the Great Backyard Bird Count. I’ve written about these programs before. For both, you simply observe and count the birds on your feeders and in your yard for a particular period of time. The lovely aspect of these citizen science programs is that you can sit in a chair, sip your favorite drink, and “go birding.” And no matter how easy it is, you contribute real data to real programs for understanding and conserving bird populations.
My main hook into the world of sitting and birding is camping (see Birds of Idaho Campgrounds, July 15, 2020). For me, there are few things sweeter than having the camp set up, the fire started, the grandkids riding their bikes on the campground loops, and me in a camp chair with my binoculars. Does eBird need a 2-hour bird count from this spot? Yes it does. Does eBird need me to do it again several times each day at the camp? No problem. Talk about a perfect fit.
But there are more aggressive ways to not go anywhere. One of these is called the Big Sit. This is where you, or you and your friends, go to some spot, pull up some chairs, and just sit and look for birds. This is very much like camping birding, but you don’t need so much stuff.
I’ve only done a full-on (not camping) Big Sit once. And that was only a Big Sit in the end. That is, I didn’t plan it. This story brings up another topic in birding culture — the Jinx Bird.
With apologies for leaving Idaho for this story, a Jinx Bird is a species that you have tried to see for a long time, perhaps many years, but for various reasons you just haven’t seen it. My only Jinx Bird is the Aztec thrush. Jinx Birds are defined only by you. It’s a personal goal and failure that you alone suffer. No one else can define a Jinx Bird for you. As such, it is to some degree mystical or philosophical. Maybe it’s a spiritual challenge from the universe. Perhaps you are not ready to see this bird.
The Aztec thrush is a gorgeous species related to our American robin. It can be seen occasionally along the Southern Border, and, of course, in the right spots in Mexico. I have been close to it numerous times in Mexico and Arizona but never managed to lay my eyes on it. My “friends,” who saw the bird when I missed it, have reminded me of my shortcomings on numerous occasions. What are friends for?
The Aztec thrush started as my Jinx Bird in the Sierra de Manantlán Biosphere Reserve of Jalisco, Mexico. Of course, at the beginning I didn’t know that this bird would become this thing. A group of us were birding the forest when two different people located two different new birds at the same time. One of them was a chestnut-sided shrike-vireo and the other was an Aztec thrush.
I thought the shrike-vireo was more exotic, so I followed directions to that bird, leaving the thrush for a few moments later. I found the shrike-vireo and was thrilled to see this magnificent bird. I could have then quickly switched to find the thrush, but the shrike-vireo was holding a large katydid in its beak, and I wanted to see what it would do next. After pounding the katydid against a branch, it dropped the bug. It was humorous to watch the bird look down from its very high perch as the katydid plummeted to the forest floor. Then I felt sorry for the bird.
OK. Time to switch to the Aztec thrush. By then the thrush had moved. After we all searched for it for several minutes, we gave up and moved on. I didn’t think much about it. You win some, you lose some. I’ll see the thrush soon enough. I didn’t.
The next episode was in the Huachuca Mountains of Arizona a few years later. I’d been birding with friends for several days, and I had to return home before they did. I heard how the day after I left some bird came flying in high over the mountains, steadily descended toward the group, and then perched in a small tree nearby. That bird turned out to be an Aztec thrush.
I’ll spare you the details, but two more times in southern Arizona I hiked to a place where Aztec thrushes had been seen, typically in the fall, but they weren’t there when I was there. The jinx was on.
More recently, I heard that an Aztec thrush had been seen every day in a chokecherry tree in Madera Canyon, Arizona. Like Charlie Brown, I was sure Lucy wouldn’t pull the football this time. I decided to go for it. I had already planned to be in Arizona for a meeting, so it was just a matter of adding one day to my trip to finally see my bird. I found a nice little motel near where the bird had been seen for many days in a row, and I prepared. I got up early, skipped the predictably disappointing free breakfast, and hit the road.
I found the parking lot, the trail, and before long the very chokecherry tree where my prized bird was surely soon to be seen. It was still dark. I pulled up a comfortable log as a backrest, set out my water, pack, and snacks, and began to wait. It was a beautiful setting, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled with anticipation.
Let’s cut to the chase. Over 12 hours later, as dark had returned, I had not seen my Aztec thrush. I learned later that it was never seen again that year in that place. The day before I arrived was the last day it had been seen there. Jinx solidly affirmed. Was I crushed or mad? I was not. My Big Sit for my Jinx Bird showed me much more than I had expected.
What I did see over those many hours was the rhythm of those woods. There was a family of elegant trogons, father, mother, and two young, who visited that chokecherry tree about every four hours. They swallowed some cherries and moved off. The elegant trogon has been a major prize for birders traveling to southern Arizona for decades. Seeing a single bird usually makes the day, month, or even year, for some birders. I had a trogon family, and they came by several times. That moves birding from a quick-strike listing hobby to a full-on life experience. Thank you. My life is better.
There was a berylline hummingbird, rare even for that area, who came by about every two hours and hovered in the air in the same spot pretty close by for no reason I could figure out. He was not fly-catching, but just hovered, looked around, and then flew off. So much we don’t know.
There was a sulphur-bellied flycatcher who came by the tree every hour or so, and whose streaks got me excited that maybe my thrush had finally showed. Snapping my binoculars quickly on the target … wrong species … again and again. But that is a super cool bird as well, and I enjoyed this non-jinx flycatcher immensely. Mix in a smattering of other birds that birders travel to Arizona to see — hooded oriole, Scott’s oriole, painted redstart, and varied bunting — and the birding was great.
Snakes passed through. A few small mammals came and went. Hikers came up the trail and went back down. We always said hi and visited briefly about what we had seen or were looking for. A black bear had been seen there a few days earlier, and that was a target for many of the hikers. Everybody was nice. Nobody saw the bear.
By late afternoon I was out of water. People who misjudge their water needs in Arizona don’t last long. But my car wasn’t that far away, and I knew I wouldn’t die … this time.
Although my Jinx Bird remains that to this day, my Big Sit near a chokecherry tree in Madera Canyon was an amazing experience in not going anywhere. Next time I will take more water, and next time I will see the Aztec thrush. For sure.