On our way to our first Birding Elderhostel, we drove out to Arizona from our home in New Mexico, staying one night in Silver City. Mary Lou seemed single-minded in her quest for the beautiful but uncommon Elegant Trogon. The next morning we stopped by Portal, Arizona and visited Cave Creek Canyon, where the Elegant Trogon had been sighted a few days before. We encountered birders who had seen it earlier that day, but we did not succeed in locating one. The Elderhostel began on a Sunday afternoon and finished up with breakfast on Saturday, May 8, 1999. We saw many interesting and new birds, but we kept missing the Trogon. One day, on the grounds of Fort Huachuca, our leaders split the group so some could go on a more strenuous hike into Scheelite Canyon. We joined the mountain climbers while the couch potatoes stayed back and walked Garden Canyon. We got to see our first Red-faced Warblers and Spotted Owls, but a couple of the “lazy folks” saw the Elegant Trogon down below!
We spent the next day, Friday, May 7, 1999, away from the trogon haunts and held little hope of ever seeing one. We did meet a visiting German birder, who mentioned he had seen the Elegant Trogon at sunup that very morning in Garden Canyon. Since we had a schedule to keep, we planned to drive home right after breakfast, so my hopes were dashed and I assumed Mary Lou did not care that much about missing her “trophy” bird after all. At dinnertime, to my surprise, she said “Let’s get up early and try to get out and see the trogon before breakfast.” I quickly assented, feeling like Br’er Rabbit in the Uncle Remus tale: “I don’t care what you do with me, Br’er Fox,” says he, “Just so you don’t fling me in that briar patch. Roast me, Br’er Fox,” says he, “But don’t fling me in that briar patch.”
A couple of other diners heard Mary Lou’s surprising statement, and said they wanted to join us. Mary Lou told them that they had to be ready to leave for Garden Canyon at 4:30 AM, or we would go without them. Sure enough, we all gathered and I drove to the fort. Just as advertised, we not only saw the beautiful male Elegant Trogon, but a female as well, and watched as she repeatedly entered and exited a prospective nesting hole.
When we got home, Mary Lou started logging her bird sightings, and has not looked back since. On her “Elegant Trogon Day” I had already accumulated sightings of 474 species over 51 years of birding in the lower 48 states. Within less than 5 months, Mary Lou recorded her 100th species, a Fox Sparrow, during a birding Elderhostel in Oregon. In the meantime, I had seen only 3 “new” birds! The next year, after birding only for 12 months, she bagged a Long-tailed Jaeger in Denali National Park, Alaska (thanks to all the new birds we saw in Alaska, my list had grown to 527 by then). On October 13, 2000 she hit 300 species with a Ferriginous Hawk in New Mexico, and with a Green Parrot in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas in April, 2002 she reached the 400 species milestone. Today she teeters on the coveted 500 mark—499 species to my 572.
Having a new birdwatcher in the family has been a real bonus for me. No more sneaking out and apologizing for coming home late when the birding was particularly good. Best of all, as Mary Lou ticked off each new life bird, I shared with her the same sense of discovery. Even my old brain remembers her first meadowlark, almost as vividly as if it were mine.
During a birding Elderhostel in New Jersey, Mary Lou spotted a male Hooded Warbler, her first, or so she thought. I reminded her that one had appeared in our backyard pond in New Mexico several years earlier, and that it was she who sighted it and excitedly brought it to my attention. “Oh,” she said, “I do remember seeing a pretty bird, but I don’t remember what it looked like.” As birders we develop “prey images” that, with experience, become quite specific, akin to the manner in which we recognize a friend or relative. Asked to draw or even describe that familiar face in detail, we fall short, yet we are certain in our identification. The art of observing and identifying is built upon repetition of the basic skills of looking and finding.