So far many of the tales I have told (all true by the way) have dealt with a common underlying theme – life through the eyes of a budding young scientist. This is because I have hacked away at information from old camp logs and field notes from the early days in my career to bring you, the reader, vivid pictures through these stories. The next reading is no different except that it takes place not in Latin America, but here in our own backyard, the USA; specifically, southeast Arizona.
Approximately 15 years ago, while working in a job that involved little variation in day-to-day work, one of my co-workers, Jerry CrabbyOtis (Crabby hereafter) and I would take up the topic of bird-watching (birding), which we both enjoyed thoroughly. He was much better at birding than I, as he had been doing it for a longer period of time than I.
One day Crabby returned from a trip to the Chiricahua Mountains of southeast Arizona. Before leaving for Arizona, Crabby was stressed out, malnourished, and probably had a G-I tract perforated with ulcers. When he returned only a week or two later, it was like he had been sent to a rapid-advance rehab facility – he was relaxed, bronze-colored from the sun, and full of more excitement than you could shake a stick at! It was as if he was a Greek leprechaun who had found a pot of gold, returning to report his quarry.
“DAN – you gotta go to the Chiricahuas man…,” he said, trying to get my attention. After he described the beautiful northern offshoot of Mexico’s Sierra Madre, and all of the tropical wildlife that thrived there, I decided a trip could well be in order.
I telephoned a friend, Steve Mayes, who was also doing the daily grind and in need of a fun diversionary field trip. Steve and I planned our trip to take place later that summer. We charted all the hot spots for tropical wildlife (especially birds) in southeast Arizona. This would be a great opportunity to do a little field work and collect scientific data on various topics involving animal foraging. I had just received my Master’s degree and wanted to take a stab at designing my own experiment, independent of an experienced mentor.
Above all, we joked around about the possibility of finding Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, Janice Joplin or Jimi Hendrix on a street in Tucson. These talented musicians, who all met a tragic end, were the subject of urban myths, perpetuating they had moved to Tucson after becoming weary of the daily grind of a famous musician. We knew the trip would be fun, and after all, someone once said, “Nothing is worth doing unless you are having fun.”
Searching for Elvis, (Jim, Janice and Jimi)…
When we arrived in the late afternoon, worn out and exhausted from the long and grueling drive from Texas, we scouted a bit and pitched camp in this ‘foreign,’ yet beautiful, habitat. I cautiously prepared the feeding tubes with three different concentrations of sugar water: no sugar in the control, 5% sugar and 20% sugar. Then proceeded to hang the feeders at the same height and distance from one-another. I was a little nervous, as this was my first ‘solo flight’ with experimental design.
Within a few minutes of dusk approaching, several nectar-feeding Long-nosed Bats (Leptonycteris curasoae) began hitting the feeders. Within a few minutes of that, the bats figured out which feeder was most concentrated with sugar and ignored the other two. Risk-sensitive foraging in action! The same pattern was observed the following morning with the hummingbirds, and within a few minutes of that the hummingbirds illustrated extreme size-mediated competition, with the larger species ousting the smaller species from the feeders. This pattern held for each site we ran the experiment at, all at varying altitudes with a different of hummingbird community. My experiment worked!!
That first morning at Sunny Flats, we set out to see what wildlife we could see in this semi-mesic Oak forest surrounded by low-lying desert. One of the first birds we saw was one of the primary target species – a female Elegant Trogon (Trogon elegans) feeding her youngster. Shortly thereafter we saw a mixed flock comprised of three Bridled Titmice (Parus wollweberi), two Yellow Warblers (Dendroica petechia) and a Painted Redstart (Myioborus pictus), with the latter being the alarm-calling sentinel, warning the other birds of our presence. We even saw a lone male Coati (Nasua narica) on the way back to camp, rooting around in the understory.
Things like the trogons, coatis, and other Neotropical species we saw are difficult to impossible to view in other regions of the the U.S., so being able to see these tropical species in this region was a genuine thrill!
One of several other sites we visited was a Nature Conservancy property called Ramsey Canyon. Within a few minutes of leaving the truck, we saw a sow and half grown cub cinnamon-phased Black Bear (Ursus americanus) strolling leisurely at the bottom of a hill, perhaps 100 yards or less from where we stood. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand. It was Ramsey Canyon where we hoped to see the Eared Quetzal (or Trogon, Euptilotis neoxenus). After spending several hours hiking up mountainsides into appropriate habitat where we might encounter the bird, we struck out and finally threw in the towel a little before dusk. We were juiced to continue our long and grueling hike, as we thought (?) we heard vocalizations, which drove us to continue on our quest for this cryptic species.
Black Bears ended up being somewhat common in southeast Arizona. In fact, we found several piles of fresh bear dung, full of the berries that were in full bloom in the arid mountains of this region. [At the time, I was very interested in ecological interactions of South American fauna and flora (as I still am today)]. One of the fascinating new findings in South America was that a carnivore, the Maned Wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus), was actually an important disperser of some of the fruits it preferred to eat. So naturally, I wanted to see if the Black Bears were dispersers or predators of the berries they consumed. I had to bring Crabby back some sort of ‘gift’, so I figured, why not some bear feces to do germination experiments with, since he had such green thumbs after all!
Now we’re sitting on a bench in an urban park, catching our breath after playing Frisbee, and getting caught up on the field notes. We have looked high and low for Band-tailed Pigeons (Patagioenas fasciata) with no luck, despite being the right time of year to catch a glimpse. Steve was relaxing, contemplating his surroundings, as he often does. Then he looks over at me calmly, hits my arm to get my attention, and upon doing so just holds his hand with his index finger pointing towards the sky. Following his directions, I see a resting Band-tailed Pigeon perched just a few feet over our heads.
Post-log (12 January 2009):Well, Crabby’s bear dung never germinated any sprouts of a plant despite his green thumbs, which told us the bears are actually seed predators in this case. The lesson learned with the Band-tailed Pigeon has again and again provided some of the most obvious answers to some of the most daunting tasks or questions I have encountered in life thus far. That is, that the answers are often right in front of our faces, if we can just slow down long enough to ‘see’ them. I have remembered this hilarious moment of the Band-tailed Pigeon perched over our heads, yet have found it to be so true in tackling research questions, dealing with crazy personalities, and other formats of problem solving – the solution is often right in front of you. Even though we never met up with Elvis, Jim, Janice or Jimi, I could have sworn I caught a fleeting glimpse of one, or the other, out of the corner of my eye on several occasions.