Kurt and Cindy Radamaker have traveled extensively throughout North America, Mexico and Central America on their birding forays. They have documented a number of first records (bird sightings) for Mexico, state and country. Kurt has authored a number of articles on birds and was the associate editor of the recent publication "Birds of the Baja California Peninsula: Status, Distribution and Taxonomy". Kurt and Cindy regularly lead local bird walks at The Boyce Thompson Arboreteum in Superior, AZ. Merlin and Ani accompany them whenever possible. Photographs were all taken by the authors and are copyrighted. They may be used by permission.
Saturday morning. 3:00 am . The alarm goes off with an annoying “Zeep – Zeep – Zeep” . Loud groans from my side of the bed, covers shooting off from the opposite side, and two 40 lb. bodies catapult themselves right onto my stomach. OOOMPH. Fast and furious tongues in my face and the light beside my bed flares into my crusty and swollen eyes. Why did I teach Merlin how to turn on that damn light? What the heck was I thinking?
So begins another day of birding with my obsessed husband and ever ready for an adventure Kerry Blue Terriers, Merlin and Ani. Who, by the way, are named for birds bearing colors similar to that of a Kerry.
Quick showers, breakfast for the dogs and a final check to make sure our gear is all packed. Let’s see. We have two sets of binoculars, spotting scopes, two digital cameras, one with a 400 zoom lens for capturing bird images and one for landscape and quick fun shots, field guides of birds, mammals and reptiles (oh fun…) maps, insect repellent, sun screen, first aid kit, ice chest filled with sodas and water, leashes, brushes and combs, dog biscuits (no, the Cheez-Its are for us, Merlin!) crates with towels, and we are off. 4:00 am . Great. How come I couldn't get my husband up and out of the house like this when we were showing?!!
Two cups of coffee and an hour down the road, I too have caught the excitement and anticipation. Where are we going today? What will we find? You see,
birding for us is like a treasure hunt; but no “X” marks the spot where we will find that elusive first record for… Wow! Maybe a county first?
Maybe a first state record (heart begins to pound!)? or… Naw. Finding and identifying a first record for North America ? Probably not this trip.
But you never know. The birding gods may be smiling on us today.
So, what is birding to us? Heading out into the field to observe and record our sightings is the culmination of time spent researching distribution lists of birds, studying feather, flight and behavior patterns and memorizing the structure and colors of over 800 North American birds, birds regularly found in Northern Mexico and Asian strays that have been recorded in the areas for which we are headed. Similarly, an experienced dog person can tell at a glance the breed of dog he is seeing by movement, color and form (the GIS pronounced "jizz" meaning general impression and shape). You learn to discriminate based on traits or characteristics of the animal before you to identify it. Is that scruffy white animal a Bichon Frise? Is it a Westie? Watch it move. Analyze the form, fur composite and general characteristics, and you will know quickly what you are seeing; especially if you have studied the breeds carefully. Is that dog at the local humane shelter a Kerry Blue Terrier? Or is it a Heinz 57? What characteristics make it a KBT? Similar thought patterns, analysis and decisions are made when you identify birds.
Ku rt ready for whatever birds we may find; Photo taken in the Huachuca Mountains of Arizona
Kurt, my husband, and I have been doing this since time immemorial. Or, anyway, so it seems to me. Nine years ago, we decided it was time to add to our
family, so in came Merlin, and then Ani. We worried how they would affect our ability to get up and go whenever we wanted, go wherever fancy took us,
to find, see and catalog our sightings, and how other birders would accept what they might consider a noisy intrusion into an otherwise quiet pastime.
You see, not only do you look for birds, but you LISTEN for them as well. By learning the myriad sounds of songs, chips and distress calls, you can
know instantly, without even seeing the bird, whether you have an Ash-throated Flycatcher or a Brown-crested Flycatcher in the tree next to you. You
can identify the strident chips of the Verdin in the Palo Verde tree, locate the Greater Roadrunner mewing out his song as he defines his territory
in the rocks above you, a Gila Woodpecker on your right, enjoy the Curve-billed Thrasher as he belts out a melodious tune that belies his rather drab
appearance, or, one of my favorites, the personality-laden, inquisitive Cactus Wren family chattering away in the brush.
Destination achieved. Car doors fly open, binoculars around our necks, backpacks filled with water and collapsible dog bowls. Now to get the dogs out.
Always erring on the side of caution, I generally keep the dogs on a leash. They stay on the leash until I can get the feel for the land, its obstacles and safety for the dogs, and who or what we might meet on the trail today. Learning early on I can’t quickly pull the binoculars to my eyes to catch the brilliant flash of the Vermillion Flycatcher as he jets out of the tree with two leashes in my fumbling fingers, I have devised a contraption that consists of a belt and buckles/snap-on clips to which I can easily attach Merlin and Ani’s leashes. The belt fits snuggly around my waist (in the last few years the belt has gotten even more snug) so my hands are free. It does take a bit of a balancing act, as two determined 40 lb. creatures can pull you off of your feet before you know it. Take it from experience; more than once I have landed flat on my behind or tummy with two little faces staring at me, innocently asking, “Gee, what happened here?”
When the four of us first started showing up at local birding areas or ‘hot spots’ we would get what we fondly refer to as the ‘bitter birding face’ (remember those beer commercials?!) or the evil eye as we arrived with two furry four-legged, panting, happy creatures. I’ve actually seen these same expressions on the faces of less tolerant birders when some poor soul has decided to include his children in an activity that all ages can participate in and enjoy. Show some patience folks! But, I digress.
Many times I have overheard soft grumbles, of which maybe I was intended to hear, of “those dogs will scare the birds away…” “Well, our day’s ruined. We won’t find the Key West Quail Dove today with those two monsters crashing around…” And I, with a determined look to my face, set out to prove these naysayers wrong.
The dogs and I hang to the back to allow for the more single-minded birders to forge ahead. Suddenly, a bird is sighted. Everyone stops and arms go flying up to faces with binoculars perched on noses. I, too, stop with binoculars poised to see whatever has caught the leaders’ attention. Ani sits at my feet and Merlin falls to the ground with back legs splayed. Not a sound from the two “intruders”. Some eyes peer back at us. I can hear their thoughts…”maybe just a fluke. Pretty soon those dogs will be barking and running amok. Just you wait and see. They’ll scare away a good bird or two before the day is over.”
A little farther down the trail and I hear someone call, “over here!” Five people trot over to see what was discovered. Merlin’s ears prick up at the shout, and we jog-walk over to the crowd. Again, the dogs drop into their bird stance. Ani is sitting, and Merlin is prone. Not a sound, well maybe a little panting. Oops! Wait, that panting is me. I’ve got to get more exercise! Faces turn to look at us again, and I’m beginning to see an appreciative glint in their eyes.
By day’s end, we've won! Even the staunchest, dogs and kids don’t belong here birders, are grudgingly telling me they forgot the dogs were around. Merlin and Ani have made a number of new friends and admirers, they have been petted and praised for their manners, questions have been asked and answered about the breed (“how do they see with that hair over their eyes? Are they Standard Schnauzers? No? Did you call them Caribou Terriers ?”) and everyone goes home happy. Well, at least those of us having seen and identified the target bird. Ani and Merlin rack up another species to add to their life list of birds seen.
Probably my favorite birding experiences, though, are when Kurt, I, Merlin and Ani take off to explore and find the mountain dwelling birds. Spending time watching my two pups fly around, off lead, through mountain meadows, chase sticks in icy cold streams and in general act like dogs having a great time fills me with life loving joy. Oh, we still see birds on these trips. The dogs’ keen power of scent and hearing have on many occasions stopped us and redirected our attention to a stand of trees, a tangle of bushes, or the path ahead of us because we saw Merlin’s nose twitch, Ani’s ears perk up, body language point in a general direction, or some other signal that the dogs have heard or smelled something. Thanks, guys! That skulking Blue Grouse and her chick would have melted into the forest if you hadn’t heard them first!
Don't get me wrong. Birding isn't always just a walk in the park. We currently live in the desert, but no matter where we have lived or birded, there have been inherent dangers in the field. Here in the desert, we have to be particularly vigilant for rattlesnakes (11 different venomous species found in Arizona alone), scorpions, javelins, coyotes, cactus plants (the jumping cholla is a particularly nasty variety), extreme temperatures, heat exhaustion, etc. In Florida, it was the pesky mosquitoes (can you say, heartworm?) or the hungry alligators hoping for a tasty pooch-burger. You must be aware of, and prepared, for any danger.
During the summer months, the dogs regrettably can’t go with us into the desert. Their adventures and travels are greatly curtailed by the 100°F++ weather we are subject to for four to five months per year. Even early morning treks are severely limited due to the heat as the sun comes over the mountains. So, they stay home in an air-conditioned home, food, water, doggy door taking them out into a restricted, fenced in dog run for potty breaks, while Kurt and I scavenge the desert for bird sightings. Now that I think about it, which is the smarter species??!!
Merlin and Ani have been on innumerable camping trips, birded across the country from California to Florida, been up and down the Baja Peninsula and have approximately 500 bird species as well as an assortment of reptiles and butterflies, on their life lists. They probably have seen more of nature’s unique life forms than many more educated humans.
Water, first aid kits, leashes, combs, brushes, poop bags and a safe environment (crates) are a must whenever we set off on travel or birding; whether it be for an extended period of time or a short jaunt to a local birding spot of only a couple of hours. Obedience training is required to ensure you have well-mannered and good neighbor pets. Fun doesn’t just happen. Being prepared, expecting the unexpected and anticipating how you would react should the unthinkable happen are all pre-requisites to having a safe, rewarding and FUN adventure with your human or canine companions. Be considerate of others on trails (don’t let your dogs jump on others, please!) knowing which national or state parks do or don’t allow pets, being sure you follow all regulations such as six foot leads and always, always, always cleaning up after your pet, will make you and your companion welcome and keep the trails open for you and your pets to enjoy for years to come.
The alarm is set for 3:00 am . Bags are packed, off to sleep we go to dream about what tomorrow may bring. Kurt dreams about finding that first North American record, I dream about the damn alarm going off in just four hours, and Merlin and Ani’s feet twitch in anticipation as they dream of their next adventure. Life is good.