When I stepped out of the car it was 6:21 AM. It had taken me an hour and seven minutes to get here from La Quinta. The morning air was chilly, very chilly, the temperature was 27 degrees. And here I was, in the high desert, at the Borrego Springs Landfill.
It’s all about a bird of course, not just any bird but a true nemesis that had evaded me, despite numerous attempts at Joshua Tree, Nevada (near Las Vegas), and even the open space preserve just a mile north of my current, cold location. But the view ain’t bad.
This harsh, sparse, and dry habitat dominated by saltbush and creosote is the domain of the elusive LeConte’s trasher, which is the Sasquatch of the thrashers because it is a pale, drab bird that prefers to run on the ground rather that fly and has the annoying habit of always keeping dense vegetation in between itself and the observer. In other words, it a damn hard bird to see and see well, that is until the pull of defending it’s territory kicks in. This usually starts in January and lasting through March.
The key to finding LeConte’s at Borrego is to arrive before sunrise, walk out west of the landfill and wait for the sun to kiss the saltbush flats and soon you will should hear the distant sound of an unseen male singing. Well hopefully that’s how it was going to happen.
The shoe prints in the frozen desert sands spoke of the other early morning birders on previous days that have come to this location to find LeConte’s. All I had to do, like the Yellow Brick Road, was follow the the footprints that would lead me to the ghost thrasher.
I first hear the rolling-meandering call of a thrasher at 6:41 AM and I rushed to the southwest in search of the singer. But this desert wraith led me on a wild thrasher-case that ended at a dense brush Leaving me gazing into oblivion. Then from my right, I heard another song and I rushed off to the northwest. This time I saw a pale bird with a peachy butt hop to the ground and disappear into a dense thicket. My first, but brief, sighting of this feathered ghost. . . I think.
Off to the northwest I clearly heard another thrasher’s song and as I hurried across the flats (dodging bushes along the way) I could see a distant bird perched up on a snag. Could this be my first good look at a LeConte’s?
I moved closer but the bird was still far off and I didn’t want to flush it off it’s singing perch. I raised my camera and zoomed in and:
no, not a LeConte’s thrasher but a loggerhead shrike. This thrasher really does make you see ghosts and phantoms.
From my left came another thrasher song and like a sail boat tacking across the sands, I set a course toward this new singer.
This time I could she a pale bird singing in a mesquite bush. Again I raised my camera to my eye and zoomed into the singer:
Then I zoomed in some more:
A pale, drab bird with a down-curved bill, peach undertail coverts and a long, dark tail. I was looking at my Nemesis Bird, the LeConte’s thrasher!! Lifer!!! ABA bird number 560! He gave me great views and I was able to capture many images.
As I slowly moved closer the thrasher popped down and out of sight into the bush. I then heard another male singing off to the northwest and off I went.
It was now 7:30 AM, the hour of power! I was able to locate another male perched up and singing on another mesquite bush. This is the bird where I got amazing looks and was able to get some great photographs to document the existence of a desert ghost.
While still in the afterglow of my thrasher experience and once I had returned back home to San Francisco, I checked the pockets of my down jacket that I was wearing on that cold morning, west of the landfill. I pulled out gloves, my scarf, and a figure that I had found, half buried in the sands, just as I was starting my search for LeConte’s thrasher. I have almost forgotten about this figure.
It was a plastic, olive green army action figure, the kind that I used to play with when I was a child. Each figure was in a different pose. There was the soldier crawling on the ground, the solder kneeling on his knee, rifle raised to his eye, the dude with the flame thrower, the guy shouldering a massive bazooka, and the soldier on the phone. But the little green soldier that I held in my hand was none of those, but the solider with left arm raised and in his right hand he held binoculars raised to his eyes, as if shouting out, “I think I see it. . .yes it’s a LeConte’s thrasher!”