My eyes were quickly developing a personality disorder; they longed with all their might to look up, but knew that looking down was beneficial for the journey ahead of them.
Up, Up, Up...That's where you'll find it; up there.
My target was the Common Black-hawk, a creature that looks as if God took a lump of coal and carved a bird out of it. This black beauty primarily breeds in Central and South America, but inches his range into the U.S. of A with small territories in the Southwestern states. The Black-hawk is one of the prolific number of trans-continental bird species that send new birders into fits of passion when visiting Arizona.
My hiking party and I found ourselves traversing rocky, and wet, terrain in search of this step to birding Mecca. The area we were scouring goes by the name of Aravaipa Canyon, and has been the last trail that many good pairs of sneakers have seen. Between the spiky, rocky terrain, and the river that must be passed through, Aravaipa has been the ruin of walking shoes for many unwary tourists.
Where are all the tourists? Oh, that's right, limited access. I'm okay with that...
I still have trouble deciding which was more appealing: the fact that a rare North American bird called this canyon home, or the fact that the Nature Conservancy has a limit of fifty people per day. In the end, I found the combination of desirable bird and the lack of crowds to be a winning combination...
But if I didn't find this bird, I was going to emerge from this hike a loser. With this in mind, we pressed on, looking for this treasure with feathers.
I had collected all the information I could accumulate before starting the trek. I knew to check along the rivers edge; knew to look for the flashy white bands on the tail, and I especially concentrated my studies on the call. Armed with this knowledge, I went out boldly in the quest for the Common Black-hawk.
But if you knew every detail ever known about the bird, that still wouldn't fish him out of this big canyon.
My inner voice had something going for him; we were small fish in a big pond seeking out a smaller fish. I say "we" knowing that after the first mile and a quarter, most of my party had probably given up on the search and were just watching their steps.
Why don't you give up too? You know what you're looking for, but you don't even have a clue of where to begin your search.
My inner monologue was right again; I had a good deal of knowledge, but with my non-existent familiarity of the territory, it was going to take a good deal of searching before I'd be able to dig out my desired hawk...
All the better I answered back.
In this day of GPS and Smart Phones (they've now combined the two, apparently) the human spirit has been deprived of its sense of discovery. A golden age of exploration has been lost to the current generation; we find our desired destinations and goals with greater ease and efficiency, but the journey has lost its magical appeal. The discovery of what lies between us and our destination has gone the way of the dodo.
To me, discovery has always had an air of the impromptu about it. The less I know about what I'm stumbling onto, the more accomplished I feel. Funny how that works...
Too bad it's not working now... the nagging voice shot forth without a second thought.
After two hours of hiking, my drive to discover had abated; I was dreaming of the air-conditioned car we'd climb into after our adventure, when I heard my uncle interject...
"Is that your bird?" he asked, pointing at the large, rocking form that was gliding by the wall of the canyon.
My mind leaped in ecstasy. Effusive emotions poured out my soul; my object had been found. My mission was accomplished....
"Or is it a Turkey Vulture?" my uncle asked, unwittingly shattering the sense of security I had attained all too briefly.
To an expert birder, the difference may be apparent. To a neophyte birder of the Southwest, the difference is less visible, especially if you can't view the bold, white bands around the tail and espceially if you only get a glimpse of your target.
"Uhhh..." I stalled for time.
"Well, which is it?" My uncle queried with slight tones of impatience. We were all hot and sweaty and grumpy, and having me dither over the identification of this prized possession I'd gone on about probably accentuated the frustration.
"I don't know," I reluctantly admitted.
"Why not?" The sharp reply.
"Because I've never seen one." The defeated response.
That was it. After a mile and a quarter hike through treacherous terrain, my beautiful, well defined Black-hawk had become just another shadow floating high on the canyon walls. It would have been an easier walk back if we had seen nothing at all.
We observed a number of different birds on the journey back, but I wanted that Black-hawk. Each call of the Canyon Wren slapped my ears in defeated desperation; every shadow of the Yellow-breasted Chat would wrench my eyes from off of my feet in hopeful expectation...but my border bird never materialized. The Common Black-hawk would forever be a shadow, floating by my record book.
Upon reaching the steep incline to the parking area, I received a new burst of energy into my deflated self, and charged up toward the vehicle of my shame. I knew the ribbing that would come:
Maybe they got strict on immigration.
Perhaps his passport expired.
Maybe we were in the wrong canyon.
And all of my predicted slams came true, as one by one, my exhausted hiking companions gave me a good ribbing.
Looking out the window, my longing for that bird only grew stronger. I wanted that silhouette of a bird we saw at the terminus of our expedition to turn into a Black-hawk in the worst way. But putting a check next to the Black-hawk's name on my life list would be a violation of ethics. As my friend told me when I began my birding career: "Birders are disgustingly honest." I was just disgusted.
"Stop," I said. "Is that a Raven?"
My pity party was interrupted by a dark speck perched fifty feet above us. The dark form stood out starkly against the sandy white cliffs. Reaching for my binoculars, I briefly got on the bird before shouting:
"BLACK HAWK, BLACK HAWK."
We had just hiked nearly two miles to see a bird that we would find as we were leaving the canyon. I was really in for the ribbing now, but I didn't care.
The bird took off as soon as the others had their optics trained on it, giving it's fierce, piercing call. His broad, white tail bands shone with an unknown luster. He soared right over our car...
And into the horizon of discovery.