I couldn’t sleep last night. Maybe it was the howling 40 mph wind or maybe it was the fan in my Day’s Inn room that only had one speed-loud! Maybe I was just restless with anticipation for my drive from Mojave to Butterbredt Springs. I woke up for good at 4:00 AM, watched the basketball results on ESPN, organized and packed and went next door to McDonalds for the oatmeal. At least the wind had died to almost nothing, that would help me hear Mountain Quail call for sure. No sense in waiting another 20 minutes for the motels breakfast to be served, I needed to be at the springs at dawn. Roger Linfield had advised me to search at dawn before the raptors were up. Made sense and besides one of my target birds for next week, a Common Chaffinch, was eaten by a Sharp-shinned Hawk last week. The predawn light was a vivid pink and by the time I’d reached Jawbone Canyon, the blood orange sun was peaking over the horizon. Three miles in, a coyote ran across the road never taking it’s eyes off of me. The drive would take about an hour so I might as well enjoy it. Who knows what I might see? The dirt portion of the road was fine for my rental car. J. Dunn knows how I drive and had warned me about one spot in the road where I could drop my oil pan if not careful.
After I parked I immediately walked into the willows, heard running water and walked in that direction. A Great-horned Owl flew down from a large cottonwood. As I swung to glass it, the sound of a quail exploding from my left caught my attention. There! It had to be……..I walked slowly in that direction and 4 more quail exploded on my right. Close within 25 feet. But they flew directly into the sun. Could they have been California Quail? I’m not sure what they were. Are there California Quail at Butterbredt? I followed a short distance but the visibility was impaired by the sun’s glare so I went back to the car to lock it. My plan was to walk rapidly east away from the spring then work slowly back towards it. Quietly and ready for action. But as I closed the car door, the mournful call of a Mountain Quail greeted me from the north. Now I wasn’t sure which way to go. I decided on my original plan, but no luck. There were two Sharpies that may have kept everything quiet. I spent the next two hours looking for Mountain Quail. True, according to ABA rules you can count “heard only” birds, but this would be a lifer. It’s kind of the same as kissing your sister. No luck, but the experience was soothing. I was in the Mojave Desert, twenty miles from even the nearest camper. No planes, no cars, no people! Only the wind gently caressing my ears. Only the sound of wilderness. California Towhees calling, a Nuttall’s Woodpecker drumming on a cottonwood and of course occasional calls of the Mountain Quail. I decided to leave on this positive note for the long drive back to Las Vegas. I had a couple of hours so figured I could stop along the way. I drove up the canyon with few regrets.
A White-tailed Antelope Ground Squirrel started things rolling. I saw it out of the corner of my eye perched like a bird on the top of a shrub. I was out of the car in a flash, camera in hand. Gone immediately, but the shallow walled canyon flowed down the hill right back towards Butterbredt Springs and I began to walk down it. Almost immediately I heard a thrasher. Wow, it was a Le Conte’s Thrasher and it was perching at the top of a shrub only 50 feet from me. It let me step closer and closer, snapping the camera continuously. Finally it flew down and proceeded to run along the ground as le Conte’s are famous for.
I continued walking slowly downslope. A Sage Sparrow perched upright at the sound of my pish. And occasionally I continued to hear the call of Mountain Quail from the right side of the slope so I investigated. Again no luck so I returned to the car, but not in a direct line. I made for the road 50 yards to the west of my car. This turned out to be the right move. Halfway back to the car a quail exploded from the roadside and drifted down the slope i’d just walked. It was larger than the California Quail I’d been seeing everywhere. Was it a Chukar? I started back down the slope when another bird followed it’s companion. This time I was ready. A Mountain Quail with a picture to prove it! Okay, so I exaggerated the comparison with Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Who knows, maybe there is room for a little fantasy in a birder’s life?
PS – I’d like to thank Gary Matthews for telling me that Mountain Quail can be found at Butterbredt Springs, Don Desjardin for printing maps for me. Roger Lindfield for his strategy on when and how to find Mountain Quail and Jon Dunn for reassuring me i could make it in to the Sprig in my small rental car. I leave Monday for Newfoundland. But this weekend I plan on savoring my morning at Butterbredt Spring.