Gerardo and Leo picked us up at dawn at our hotel in San José, and three hours later we started our walk in the Sierra de la Laguna above San Antonio.
It was a lovely warm morning, and there were birds to be seen along the way, to boot. Single black-throated gray and Townsend’s warblers reminded us that we were in the southwest, and the San Lucas robin made sure we knew that we weren’t just anywhere in the southwest.
We also got to see the bizarrely dim-eyed angustifrons acorn woodpecker, and a heavily spotted spotted towhee that was presumably the aptly named umbraticola. A feral hog was a source of momentary puzzlement, and then it was higher, ever higher.
I was embarrassed at having to take three (three!) quick sitting breaks for out-of-breathness, but everyone was kind about it. I’m not used to being The Problem Client, and I’m not used to being Oldest In The Group, but I guess I’d better start resigning myself to it. At least each of my long pauses was another chance at leisurely enjoyment of the stunning desert scenery.
Then, at about 1200 meters, Gerardo mentioned that we were at the lowest spot he’d ever seen the bird. “And there’s one now!”
In early February 1883, when he was exactly my gasping, panting age, Lyman Belding set off alone for the Sierra. Belding found “the trail leading to Laguna … the longest, highest, and possibly the worst” in these mountains, “which were probably never previously explored by any collector.”
The effort paid off handsomely, however, when, on reaching the lower edge of the pines, Belding encountered “a beautiful new Snowbird,” which he dispatched and sent to Robert Ridgway at the Smithsonian for description, specifying that the new bird was to be named for Spencer Baird, “in consideration of [his] valuable ornithological services… in field and office, not the least of such services being his original, full, and accurate descriptions of so many North American birds.” Ridgway, finding the bird “pretty and very distinct,” obliged, concluding his formal description with the observation that the Baird’s Junco “is so markedly distinct… from all its congeners as to really need no comparison with any of them.”
We didn’t have to go anywhere near the pines.
Instead, all we had to do was plop down on the roadside and wait for this most beautiful of the juncos to re-emerge from the shadows to feed in the open.
The birds were nervous at first, perching in the bushes and chacking like tiny thrashers.
Soon enough, though, we had three Baird’s juncos on the ground in front of us, busily stripping the seeds from a grama-like grass and daintily plucking petals from low flowers.
For the most part, all three were quite stolid, barely shifting their big feet when it came time to reach up to take another bite.
There was a little bit of occasional and unenthusiastic double-scratching, but never in the hour we watched them did I see the creepy shuffling so typical of Mexican yellow-eyed juncos, just short hops.
The birds grew more trusting as time went on, and I was able to repeatedly change my position, getting closer each time, without causing any obvious alarm. They were obviously alert to whatever passed overhead, though, reacting nervously to everything from turkey vultures to a canyon wren, and I suspect it was a flighted threat that finally chased the birds back into the dense, dark vegetation whence they had come.
Our walk back down the mountainside was nothing short of joyous, a dream of decades having finally come true. Minds and memories full of the junco, we paused to look at fruiting burseras
and weirdly exfoliating slopes.
Thanks to Bryan, Gerardo, and Leo for making this day such an astounding success. I can’t image what the rest of 2017 could possibly bring to match it.