Black-capped Gnatcatcher- with a Little Help from Your Friends

I woke up at 4:15 AM yesterday.  Tossed and turned then tried to go back to sleep. A wake up call for 5:00 AM  was scheduled and I needed sleep.  But it was no use, I was wide awake.  It would be an important day and unsettling.   I had a bad feeling about this.  It wouldn’t be easy.  I was meeting Sally Johnsen and Ethan Goodman at the McDonalds in Green Valley, AZ at 5:30 AM to try again for the Black-capped Gnatcatcher.  I’ve tried many times for this bird in Arizona without any luck so I wasn’t terribly optimistic.  We were birding at Montosa Canyon by 6:00 AM.  We waited, walked, waited and walked some more. For two hours we searched up and down the wash without luck.  Black-capped Gnatcatchers need Netleaf Hackberries that grow in semi-dry canyons and desert washes.  They’d been seen here on multiple occasions over the last four months, most likely nesting.  Could they have gone quiet while nesting?  At 8:20 AM the three of us heard the catbird like hisses. Four notes. That was it. Sally has field experience with this gnatcatcher and she yelled “promising”.  But my hearing is terrible even with the Songfinder.  Even though American Birding Association (ABA) rules state that you can count a “heard” bird, I wasn’t comfortable yet.

We continued to search and let the four birders from Cornell Laboratory of Sound know we had a possible “heard bird”.  That would pay dividends later.  We all continued searching, but again no luck.   I could tell that Sally and Ethan were getting tired of tediously searching.  We continued to search but no luck.  I rationalized that it’s okay.  Nobody succeeds everytime. There’s no shame in missing. It’s the chase that counts and besides I still had August to try.  At 9:10 AM, I’d given up and said “Hey guys, I can take you back to Green Valley and…”.  That’s when Ethan looked up the hill and said, “He’s got it!”  One of the Cornell guys was frantically waving to us 200 yards up hill.  I ran, full speed uphill along with Ethan.  You could hear two birds chattering away in front of him.  It was the exact same sound, we’d heard earlier.  Two birds, one dark capped male and one female.

Victory accomplished with the help of friends. And that’s how this quest will continue.  With the help of friends.  The help of my four brothers, especially Bill, who now has 430 species for the year of his own.   With the help of Jon Dunn and his wealth of information and advice.   With the help of the Colorado Boys of Rock Dove Tours.  And with the help of the countless birders I’ve now met along the way and those not yet met along the trail.  You don’t do a Big Year in a vacuum.  You do it like I did yesterday.  With a little help from your friends.

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