By Ken Lamberton
On day 218 of the Pandemic, my daughter Jessica and I hike in black masks south along Speeden Wash to her wildlife cameras under the I-10 culverts in the 3000-acre Empire Ranch. She is here for her research project documenting the migrations of bear and mountain lion, bobcat, badger, and coati by using her tracking skills, roadkill surveys, and 36 cameras and 14 volunteers. I’m here for the birds.
Last summer, I listed two dozen species, including several raptors and the tiny, gray desert-riparian warbler with the rufous rump and crown named for the daughter of a nineteenth-century ornithologist and the first curator of the Smithsonian Institution. Lucy Hunter Baird, an expert naturalist and scientist in her own right, came from a family and history of strong, independent, and intellectually curious women. Which isn’t surprising to me. I’m surrounded by such women.
This morning, trailing behind Jessica, I count the birds on one hand. A pair of cactus wrens rattles somewhere unseen. A curve-billed thrasher becomes mesquite shadow. The desert is cool and quiet—quiet, at least, until we reach the freeway. While Jessica pulls the memory cards and changes batteries on cameras we previously glued to the concrete culverts, I search for Lucy’s warblers in the usual places but find none. Despite the one in my yard last week—a first-ever and number 129 on my Bisbee yard list—I imagine most have already made the fall journey back to southwestern Mexico.
When she finishes and we hoist our packs, a small sparrow lands in the sand in front of us. I see a rusty crown and think juvenile white-crown sparrow, another common bird, but snap four pictures anyway. Species number five for the day.
Then I’m off to Willcox and the Twin Lakes Golf Course to check out the shorebirds and a recent rare bird report of a greater white-fronted goose while Jessica heads for home in the opposite direction.
This evening, as usual, I download the day’s photos and begin deleting them—mostly scores of images either out of focus or of something I don’t recognize or remember. Why did I take a fuzzy picture of this white-thorn thicket? The joys of digital technology. When I come to the sparrow at Speeden Wash, my finger pauses over the delete key. I enlarge the image and see that it’s not a white-crown. Maybe a chipping or Brewer’s sparrow? But the lores—the tiny spaces between the eye and beak—are pale. And the cheek patch looks well defined above a dark “mustache.” The breast feathers seem buffy, almost the color of clay…
With rising excitement, I post two blown-up pictures of the sparrow to my birding friends on social media and get an immediate response: Clay-colored Sparrow! A rare transient in Arizona and a species I’ve never seen before: Life Bird #437.
Tags: birding, I-10 East, Sonoran desert