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July 28th, 2009
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If at first you don’t succeed…

[thumb:4276:l]After Friday’s unsuccessful effort, I couldn’t resist having another go at seeing the Brown-backed Solitaire at Ramsey Canyon. I decided to give myself a break and arrive around the time the bird is usually seen, so took a leisurely drive down to the Huachuca Mountains and pulled into the parking area just after 10am.

I knew I’d do it, one day, and today was the day. Such is the shambolic nature of my life. I loaded the camera onto the tripod, turned it on and it reported… No CF Card! Oh no, I’d left the memory (essentially the film) for the camera plugged into the computer’s card reader, and I didn’t throw my camera bag with spare CF cards into the car either. On the one hand I have about 20GB of memory at home, but on the other hand I was faced with a day of frustration, so the decision had to be made – I drove back down the mountain and into Sierra Vista, where, after drawing a blank at Best Buy, I was able to buy a new CF card at Radio Shack. Thanks Radio Shack, you saved the day!

[thumb:4285:r][thumb:4271:l]I was in a hurry but, after last week’s chili-eating episode, I  had to stop and get a photo of this massive moth, which I think is a Rustic Sphinx, clinging to the wall of the Nature Conservancy building. It was 11:30am by the time I got to the solitaire spot, but it hadn’t been seen yet so I settled in to watch the Wilcox Barberry bushes. After a few minutes the shout went up – the solitaire was in. Or rather, it was out again – it must have arrived unnoticed and was seen for just a few seconds before flying back into the canopy. We waited for the bird to return but before long it began to sing further down the slope. And what a song! A long, descending series of amazing  jingling, breaking-glass notes that couldn’t possibly be replicated.

The bird continued to sing and moved a couple of times, but it was just a shape flying through the trees and, frustratingly, after 15 minutes it fell silent without ever showing itself. Along with several other birders, I settled back in at the bushes and waited.

At 2:30pm a very kind lady ran up the trail towards us, out of breath and on the verge of collapse. “It’s singing down the hill near post 4” she gasped. We thanked her profusely and hurried downhill. After a few anxious moments that incredible song was heard again, and someone picked it out in the canopy. Try as I might, I just couldn’t see it for a frantic few minutes, but thankfully it moved a few feet onto a more prominent branch and finally, after a day and a half, I could see the Brown-backed Solitaire!

The photos were shaping up to be dreadful but then I had another stroke of luck. Yet another kind birder (sorry I didn’t get anyone’s names) lent me his Canon flash with magnifier attachment, and the photos turned out a lot better than I thought they would. They were quite distant but I’ve cropped them almost at 100% and they’re not too bad.

The bird flew after about ten minutes, initially into the tree directly above us, where it plucked something from the canopy in the way a large flycatcher, or indeed another thrush species would, and then it was off again. I trundled back up to the berry bushes, where the solitaire usually made an appearance around 3:30pm. The solitaire was a no show but the other birds coming in to feed were being cooperative.

I left those who had missed the afternoon showing and set off back down the mountain towards the car. But on reaching the spot where I saw the bird earlier, I realized it was my turn to run up the hill as the solitaire was back, singing its heart out. It’s not too far, and it’s not too steep… unitl you try to run it! Well, if you’re an unfit smoker like me, that is. My legs are still aching now! I don’t know if anyone got to see it, but it was still singing when I finally left.

Ridiculously, these two trips to Ramsey Canyon were my first ever visits to this splendid place. With the experiences of not only the solitaire but the rattlesnake, the Coati, the hummingbirds, robins, grosbeaks, flycatchers and more, I’m certain it won’t be my last. It’s a classic, pristine, middle to high elevation riparian canyon of the Southeast Arizona Sky Islands and the good news is that the Nature Conservancy are doing a terrific job of protecting it.

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