At Camp Chiricahua in 2012, I had the time of my life. There were many great experiences, friends, and of course, birds. One particular day stands out to me among the rest; it was the day that will forever remain in my memory – the day we saw a Montezuma Quail.
By James Purcell
At Camp Chiricahua in 2012, I had the time of my life. There
were many great experiences, friends, and of course, birds. One particular day
stands out to me among the rest; it was the day that will forever remain in my
memory – the day we saw a Montezuma Quail.
The entire group had just come back from a fantastic birding
day on Paradise Road, Barfoot Mountain, and Onion Saddle, full of Red-faced
Warblers, Pygmy Nuthatches, Mexican Chickadees, Scott’s Orioles, Virginia’s
Warblers, Juniper Titmice, and so many other unique birds. Everyone was
satisfied, except for one thought that penetrated each person’s mind. Paradise
Road had been one of our best shots for Montezuma Quail on the trip, and today
was our last day in the Chiricahuas. Everyone knew that, while still possible,
our chances for getting this secretive denizen of the oak grasslands were
greatly decreased after we left this mountain range.
With this thought in mind, six campers, including myself,
decided to take one last desperate stab for quail around the grounds of Cave
Creek Ranch, the beautiful and scenic birding paradise where we had been lucky
enough to stay for the past few days. We had heard from Michael O’Brien, one of
our extremely talented leaders, that they could be found around the area here;
one simply had to look for “the rock that moves.” That was the most frustrating
and yet enticing part about this bird; they weren’t rare by any means in this
area, but they are so secretive that they stay put in the long grass until you
are within a foot of them.
The challenge was accepted, and we headed out to the dry
riverbed. We didn’t really have a plan of action other than to walk through the
proper habitat and hope to either flush one off the trail or hear a male giving
his distinctive whistle. I don’t think anyone really had the idea that we would
actually see one that day. I’ve never been happier to be wrong.
We started down a trail through the oak grasslands on the
fringes of the property. Deeper and deeper we explored until we realized that
we were a fair distance away from the ranch. In fact, we were on a ridge and we
could see the ranch far below. We pushed on, aware that we would have to turn
around soon to get back in time for dinner.
Everyone was walking down the trail, casually discussing the
birds of the day in a quiet tone, when we heard it. We all stopped dead in our
tracks. It was the distinctive descending whistle of a male Montezuma Quail,
somewhere off the trail. We all looked at each other in silent excitement.
We had a decision to make. We could either stay on the trail
and hope that the bird got closer, or we could go off the trail and hope the
bird keeps calling so we could pinpoint the location and hopefully catch a
glimpse of it. It was decided that the latter choice would be the best one,
seeing as the bird continued to call but did not sound as if it was getting any
There could be many things in the grass of southeastern
Arizona that one would not want to step on, rattlesnakes among them, so we all
took tentative steps into the grassland off the trail. We moved up the hill,
but the bird had stopped calling. It must have heard us as soon as we stepped
off the trail. We waited for over 10 minutes, but it was useless. The bird had
heard our approach and was probably hunkered down in the grass somewhere, never
to be found.
Still, we had heard the bird and that counted for something,
I thought to myself. I brought up the idea that we should probably walk back
down the hill a different way we came up, and we should split up into two
groups of three in order to better our chances of possibly flushing the bird on
the way down. Everybody knew that it was a needle in a haystack. That bird
would not move unless we nearly stepped on it. Theoretically, we could have
found it by staying there for hours and running through all the grass on the
hill. However, we had no wish to harass the bird or disturb the environment, so
we just hoped maybe we would get lucky making our way back to the trail.
We started our casual conversations again, believing we had
lost our chance. I was walking behind Kyle, and Eamon was behind me. Only ten
feet away were Cedric, Aaron, and Alex in a line. All of a sudden, something
exploded off of the ground in front of Kyle. After the milliseconds of fright I
looked at the bird naked eye as it flew down the hill. It was small, completely
round, with a dark belly. It turned to the left and then disappeared around a
line of junipers, and when it turned I caught a glimpse of the harlequin face
pattern. Everyone was silent, and looking at each other with disbelief. Had we
actually just seen a Montezuma Quail?! There was silent celebration (mostly
We wanted to try and get a better look at it, as Aaron said
that he thought he had seen it land behind a juniper. The bird certainly had
not flown far, so we made our way over to the isolated juniper bush in the
grass. We surrounded it, and as we were peering into the grass, I remembered my
bottle of root beer in my pocket. I had bought it earlier in the day in Portal.
I hadn’t opened it yet, saving it for a “victory drink” in case we somehow
found a quail. Well, we found the quail, so I took it out and opened it as we
closed in on the bush.
With all the excitement and adrenaline of the last few
minutes, I completely forgot that the bottle had been shaken around as we
walked and climbed up the trail. When I opened it, it exploded. Soda started
fizzing and spraying out of the half-open bottle, and not really knowing what
was going on myself, I started yelling and holding the bottle away from my
binoculars. Cedric, who had been in front of me, was also yelling because he
had no idea what was going on and what liquid was spraying into his back. The
bottle calmed, and then there was complete silence. At first, there were looks
of anger. There was no way that bird was nearby now. Then, everyone started
laughing hysterically. Alex had thought someone had gotten bitten by a
rattlesnake when he heard the hissing and yelling, and Cedric thought I was
sneezing on him when felt the soda.
Still laughing, we decided to leave the bird alone and we
made our way back to Cave Creek Ranch. We had seen the elusive and spectacular
Montezuma Quail, and I had the sticky hands and few sips of root beer left in
the bottle to prove it. We had done it by ourselves, the young campers, without
the expertise of an adult leader. The Montezuma Quail is to this day my
favorite bird, and that is a day I will never forget for the rest of my life. It
reminded me why I love birding. It’s about the chase, the amazing friendships,
the stories, the things that amaze you, and the things that make you laugh
along the way.
About the author: My name is James Purcell. I am 16 years old and from
Fairfield, CT. I was really into owls in 4th grade, and this
obsession soon expanded to include all birds when I received a field guide in
the mail from my local Audubon society (Owls are still my favorite family of
birds). I started out watching the birds at the feeders, and then I moved to
watching birds all over my yard. Then, in 7th grade, I began birding
in the field outside of my property. I was exposed to a whole new world, and I
embraced it completely. I started going birding around town, and then outside
of town all over Connecticut, and then all over New England, and now I am
birding all over the country, and even outside the country occasionally. I rarely
go anywhere without my pair of binoculars, and I especially enjoy taking
advantage of birding on family vacations. At first I thought birding was
another one of my “phases” – I would grow out of it eventually like I had with
all my others. However, it soon became clear to me that this would be a
lifelong passion, and even now I am planning my future in college around
birding and ornithology. My favorite bird is the Montezuma Quail; it was hard
for it not to be after that amazing experience.