Birds in the Borderlands

There were plants and birds and rocks and things. There was sand and hills and rings.

[by Reid Bryant]

IF YOU WERE TO STAND WHERE COCHISE ONCE STOOD, in the high saddles of the Chiricahua Mountains, you’d look out over a sweep of land that makes scale immaterial. Here the landscape grows so wide and spare that within it one can’t conceive of borders or the potential for man-made impediments. The scrub and grassland, the ocotillo and mesquite, become an indistinct mottling of straw browns and greens as dry and crinkly as shed snakeskin.

This landscape goes on forever, and the horizon becomes a shimmering apparition more than a line of demarcation, barely decipherable at all. It’s hard to consider that somewhere in that arc of scrub desert, a barrier of corroded steel delineates two governments—being far simpler to take in the whole and consider this landscape as wide and uninterrupted as all eternity.

That said, standing there looking down into Mexico, you’d do yourself a disservice not to look a little closer. You’d do yourself a disservice not to view this land as Cochise once did, or as Aldo Leopold would have when he thought “like a mountain,” contemplating the interconnectedness of matters big and small.

Within that sweep of desert, within that jumble of mountains and grassland that straddles a border and holds up a sky, there occurs a remarkable marriage of ecosystems. Here, the Rocky Mountains of the north greet the Sierra Madre of the south, and the Chihuahuan Desert of the east meets the Sonoran of the west. The attendant flora and fauna commingle, and this confluence makes for some powerful stuff, both spiritually and ecologically. Its energy cannot be retained by a Normandy Barrier, and it renders the very concept of one laughable. Jaguars roam these borderlands, drifting north over in ternational lines from the Central American jungles. Scaled, Gambel’s, and Mearns quail hustle back and forth across the hillsides, flushing from Mexico to the United States and back again. Mule deer and black bear and javelina follow ancient migratory paths, brushing against that iron fence, startling drug runners and “coyotes” whose disregard proves even more troublesome. This place mingles land and people and animals and climate into something that is not easily hemmed in. It is unlike anywhere else in the world.

The desert grasslands of Southern Arizona are expansive, with views stretching deep into Mexico. Nestled into that landscape are three species of tight-sitting quail, as wild and secretive as the hills themselves.

Whether Josiah Austin considered these profundities when his love affair with the region began, it’s hard to say. Ask him, and he’ll think for a bit and respond, “No, the place just spoke to my heart.” But he did know that it was a beautiful and powerful country, and that the area ranches came cheap, as generations of cattlemen had grazed the place into a wasteland. It’s also safe to say that he couldn’t have known the impact he’d have on the region’s fate, or the impact it would have on his own as he shook off any thought of what could not be accomplished and simply saved something worth saving. What is clear is that the place speaks to Josiah, and it speaks to him loudest through quail.


On a January day, Josiah is standing just off the access road of the Bar Boot Ranch, one of the properties that he and his former wife, Valer, purchased and began restoring back in the mid-1980s, amalgamating a vast portion of the desert southwest into an ecological success story under the umbrella of the Cuenca Los Ojos foundation. Over the past 35 years, what is now CLO has grown to maintain borderland properties in the United States and Mexico, with the sole purpose of restoring and preserving biodiversity, independent of international boundaries. This feat was accomplished most directly through water capture and a massive resource-management plan that reduces erosion and enables plant and animal regeneration. By allowing water to make a natural (i.e., slow) passage through the landscape and the ecosystem, erosive soils were retained alongside standing water. Couple those changes with an aggressive reintroduction of native species, and an eradication of invasives, and a place that had been recently mummified burst into life once more. The recurrence of native feed sources and water triggered a rebound in biodiversity. That meant quail and all that they represent, which makes Josiah Austin quite happy.

A tall and lanky man with a runner’s build, Josiah is dressed for the hunting day in a pair of faded jeans, a wide-brimmed hat, and his tattered shell vest. He’s nibbling on a dried grass stem, looking off dreamily to the west. There’s a skyline ridge there, a spine of contrasting green that makes the blue more radiant, but that is not what Josiah seems to see. He pulls the grass stem from his teeth.

“See the trincheras?” He sweeps a long arm over the landscape. “They’re the little earthen dikes that we’ve placed in the arroyos and washes, to hold back the rainwater and prevent erosion. I bet I can see a hundred of them just from here.”

I look hard but can’t see what he does. He smiles. “Look here,” he says, pointing closer. “There’s one right there, a small one. We call the small ones like that trincheras, but they are really just earthen berms. They fill the washes that runoff eroded when the native grasses were killed by overgrazing. True trincheras are made of stone. The bigger ones, the gabions, are wrapped in wire. You’ll see more of them tomorrow, on one of the other ranches. Over all the properties, I’d say we’ve built maybe 25,000. If anyone had told me that we’d be building 25,000 when I was just starting out, I’d likely never have built even one.”

I take a few steps closer, until I see what he sees. Nearly encased in dried grass, there is a small stonework dam that spans a shallow arroyo. It’s barely waist high, not four feet across, but lovingly assembled of rocky soil. I walk over to it. The grass behind it is thick, though dead in the lateness of the season. The sand there is dust dry, and fine like talc.

“That’s the point,” says Josiah. “The silt doesn’t get washed out, it gets retained. That’s where the native grasses and sedges grow. It’s the bulbs of those that the Mearns eat.”

And indeed it is. We see the etchings of small digging feet in the silt behind the berm, and Josiah traces them with his grass stem.

“Lots of Mearns on this property. Let’s try to go find a few.” He flicks the grass stem away, naming it quietly in Latin, reverently, under his breath. It’s unclear whether this is for my edification or not. We load up regardless, and work our way deeper into the desert grassland that Josiah and the desert quail now share.

THE IDEA OF HUNTING QUAIL ALONG THE MEXICAN BORDER HAD BEEN RATTLING AROUND IN MY HEAD FOR SOME TIME. It is likely that daydreaming was as far as the idea would have gotten had I not been friends with Dan Michels. Dan is another one of these fellows who doesn’t see impediments, and within weeks of floating an idea that I presumed was a nonstarter, I got a call from Scottsdale. “We’re hunting with my friend Dave Brown. He’s guiding and running his dogs on a property called the El Coronado Ranch. If we’re lucky, the dogs will be quartering back and forth into Mexico to retrieve our birds. I’ll pick you up in Phoenix.” So naturally, as happens when a dreamer is at the wheel, it all fell perfectly into place.

We wended our way out of the Phoenix sprawl, driving into the January night, stopping once for a case of Modelo and a handful of Mexican limes, and again for a bowl of albóndigas soup in Benson to stave off the evening chill. Dan was wild-eyed and excited, having hunted the region with great success just a week earlier. I was taking comfort in the warm soup and cold beer, quietly hoping that we’d not wind up on the wrong side of a drug drop, and that our penchant for guns would not make us hostile combatants. With bellies full, we trundled back into Dan’s truck and drove deeper into a desert borderland whose mountains were backlit by stars.

This was country I’d visited years ago, in one of those bohemian quests for connection. I’d not hunted then, but climbed through the spires of the Dragoons and Chiricahuas absorbing what I could of Goyahkla’s Apache medicine through twig fires and nights spent under the Arizona sky. The bloodstained desert soils that comprise a life on the borderlands fill the region with a palpable mystery, and the expansive silences make it bigger.

We turned into Turkey Creek Canyon and rattled over the cattle guards. The canyon grew tighter by feel, and the air was cool and still. Several miles in, the lights of the ranch house flickered in between branches. We pulled into the dooryard. Perched above us was a glorious hacienda, illuminated inside and out, a beacon of warm welcome. It seemed the only human habitation for miles and miles. We hustled in. Dave and Josiah were there in a room filled with firelight and warmth. We gathered beside a massive hearth and made our introductions. To say that we felt welcome would be an understatement. We warmed ourselves by the fire and considered the days to come. Josiah poured bourbons. Dave laid out a plan.

In this region, Mearns quail are king. Those glorious birds are found in intermittent patches of rolling desert along the Mexican border, often concurrent with Gambel’s and scaled quail, though the latter two prefer the bottomlands and places where standing water collects. In the eyes of a hunter, however, the species differ more significantly. Where Gambel’s and scalies run wild and bust, Mearns quail hold tight in grassland and scrub cover. For that reason, they are a pointing dog’s dream, erupting in coveys of 10 or more birds that whizz off like bottle-rockets in a clatter of short-feathered wings. They are rare and beautiful, which in combination make a hunter’s heart beat faster. I’d never seen one in person, let alone held one warm in my hand. They’d become for me instead just another piece of the regional mystery, an emblem of that Apache medicine, a vestige of the Wild West.