“Five days out of the last seven I’ve been on ten-mile hikes,” the 60-year-old Ann told me on the phone one day last spring, six months before we met. “I’ve been birding in really remote parts of the county. What people for this project do is adopt a square. They’re responsible for reporting on the birding activity there. Many squares in the remotest spots weren’t adopted by anybody. So now we have what we call blockbusters, where a group of us do the square. Last weekend I helped do a square that we had to hike two and a half miles just to reach. There were a few squares Phil was ready to give up on. He thought nobody was going to get there. But everybody is pitching in, and we’re all learning about these places we would never have known about otherwise.”
The number of squares is 479. The A’s start in the north; the W’s are the southernmost row. The numbers start in the west and move eastward, from 1 to 29. So you can approximate a square’s location if you know its number and letter. Each square was also given a name based on a landmark within its borders. Some squares on the eastern edge of the county have lyrical landmark names, perhaps the better to entice volunteers to adopt them — “Well of Eight Echoes,” for example, and “Hills of the Moon Wash.” Other landmark names — “Thing Valley,” “Arsenic Spring,” and “Hellhole Canyon” — don’t pretend to be luring.
The landmark name for V17 is the relatively neutral “Little Tecate Peak.” No one had adopted it; the Keenans were part of a blockbuster whenever they went there. The terrain wasn’t the reason why it needed a blockbuster. As Unitt explained it, touching on other challenges of the project: “V17 wasn’t difficult to get to, provided you made arrangements ahead of time to pick up the key, had a vehicle you were comfortable driving on dirt roads, and weren’t intimidated by the nearness of the Mexican border, at a point where armed drug smugglers could easily slip across. It actually wasn’t until the last year of the project that we found out we could get the key to the gate on the line between U17 [‘Engineer Springs’] and V17 from the Bureau of Land Management. Previously, we’d had to borrow a key from the rancher who leases the land, a situation requiring much more diplomacy.” One project member went to a community meeting in Dulzura to familiarize people with the bird atlas. “His central goal was maintaining friendly relations with this lessee. Finding out how to negotiate some of these difficult areas took us years. Even if an area is owned by some more or less public agency, there may be all sorts of other obstacles to our just wandering in and looking at birds.”
Unitt knew that three squares in the Santa Rosa Mountains of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park — C27, C28, and D28 (“Villager Peak,” “Santa Rosa Mountains Northeast,” and “Santa Rosa Mountains Southeast”) — were so remote that one simply could not hope to drive out there, hike to the square, have time to bird, and carry enough water to make it out alive. It’s some of the steepest terrain in the county. So he and two others were helicoptered to those places. Lori Hargrove was one of those two. “It only took a few minutes from the Borrego Springs airport before we were looking down at the ridges we would be exploring,” the 36-year-old Hargrove wrote of her experiences for Wrenderings, the bird-atlas project’s quarterly newsletter. “After dropping Phil off at Villager Peak, the helicopter pilot wanted to know where to take me, so I motioned toward the range I was to cover just east of Rattlesnake Canyon and told him ‘anywhere you can find an open spot.’ We soon alighted gently in a small clearing next to a rocky peak. I got myself and gear out, waved goodbye, and while I squinted from the blowing sand watching him fly off, I wondered if he would be able to find this same spot three days from now.”
Securing permission to bird on Indian reservations posed a challenge of another sort. Each tribe reacted in its own way to requests from volunteers.
“I had anticipated the varying reactions,” said Unitt. “Their reputations were already known. For example, the La Jolla and the Los Coyotes reservations have public camping facilities, and as long as you pay the fee, there’s no problem gaining access.”
In the case of Los Coyotes, it was particularly important for the project to have this tribe’s cooperation. Six squares are either entirely or significantly within its borders. “And if we had not gotten on there, we simply wouldn’t have been able to cover those areas at all. So that was really good. They have been extremely friendly. In addition, the highest mountain in San Diego County is on their land, and in the 1980s, while working on the old book, I went to that mountain, the first birder or ornithologist ever to go there. Hot Springs Mountain. So this time we’ve been able to cover it much more thoroughly than I did. It spreads over four squares, E20 [‘Hot Springs Mountain West’], E21 [‘Hot Springs Mountain East’]; F20 [‘Eagle’s Nest’], and F21 [‘Los Coyotes’]. The summit is in E20, but the most interesting habitat is in E21. Two of our volunteers covered these squares for us very thoroughly, making some overnight owling trips as part of it.”
The Kumeyaay Indians, by contrast, were not cooperative, unfortunately for Unitt. “We just discovered a new colony of willow flycatchers up at El Capitan Reservoir, and now the Indians are patrolling around the reservoir and are not even — ” He paused, choosing his words. “We don’t want to antagonize them. We want to be friendly with them. See, the thing is that these requests have to go to their tribal councils, and then it gets ratcheted up to another level of politics. And I think a lot of it is done by consensus. And unless it has unanimous enthusiasm from everybody, which as a possibility is basically nil, nothing happens.”