Arch McCallum is Birding and So Can You!

Apr 29, 2020

I first met Arch McCallum in an RV campground in the center of Las Vegas, Nevada. Camille Torfs-Leibman and I had driven from Albuquerque the previous day, picking up Lee Farnham in Gallup after he had recreated his first trip to the Gulch, hopping off the train and staying the night at the historic El Rancho Hotel. We had woken up early on the coast of Lake Mead, and picked up a few extra supplies that we had forgotten to purchase the days leading up to the Trek.

After finding where Arch had parked his rental RV, we hopped out, ready to meet one of the two esteemed leaders of the Flocks and Rocks Adult Trek, the other, or course being John Bloch. We knocked on his door and he pops out, half finished breakfast in hand. 

“Hey guys! I’m just working on packing the last few things up, then I have to fill up gas before dropping my rental off. Then I’ll meet you at the airport. Y’all have room for a few more things in the com right?” 

The com was packed quite full, but assured him that there was some room left. The collection of things that came out of the RV next I was not quite prepared for. 

  • Some fruits and veggies, all in great condition
  • A duffel with his camping gear
  • A lawn chair
  • A small package of cheese
  • A Plexiglas bowl with a hole in the bottom, why we needed to rearrange the com to pack it, I was unsure.

After a coffee stop and some vehicular adventures in downtown Las Vegas, Camille and I walked into the airport, carrying a lunch cooler between us filled with the finest parking-lot-constructed-sanwiches you’ve ever seen. As flights arrived, and participants were reunited with friends, I was only getting a taste of what would be an epic and memorable adventure. 

We traveled from Nevada into southern Utah, experiencing some of the finest Red Rock territory, and visiting tiny oases on the way. Binoculars were often found around the necks of each participant, and bird lists were always being updated. It was not until a few days into the trek that I rediscovered that plexiglass bowl.

As one of the cooks, for our previous school season, I was used to being up early, generally before anyone else knew our day had already started. That was not true for this trip. Arch consistently beat me up, knowing well that the pre dawn hours were some of the best for birding. One morning, as I was cooking up some breakfast, arch came walking back into camp. That plexiglass bowl was with him, and I finally realized what it really was. 

Each morning, before anyone else was up, Arch would go out searching for birds, not because he was looking for any that he hadn’t seen yet, but because he wanted to record their songs with as little disturbance as possible. That bowl that I had reluctantly packed in the com that first day was the dish to his parabolic microphone, and device designed to record audio from far away. With his headphones on, he could point his microphone in different directions, not only picking up different birds that were hard to hear, but isolation their song with little distracting background noise. 

It turns out, Arch has been recording birds for the last 30 years or so, and has a collection of fine recordings from his backyard, and many places he has traveled. Through our time of self isolation, Arch is making his recordings public, adding a new bird to his website every day. In addition to the recordings, he has terminology about bird songs, and how songs can help identify species from a more scientific method than simply knowing what specific birds sound like. 

I for one, have never been particularly interested in birds, nor keeping a list of one’s that I have seen and heard, but I do understand why others do. Birding, and the data collection that happens with it, especially now in the 21st century, is a scientific adventure that everyone on our planet can participate in from wherever they are, and contribute to a worldwide effort to collect more data on our natural world. With apps for our smartphones like eBird, you can see what birds are in your area, keep lists of what birds you have seen, and add your data to worldwide conservation efforts, having a lasting impact on preserving the natural world we all love.

If there is a time to try out birding, now may be it. Most of us have hours of time at home, twiddling our thumbs and trying to occupy our minds. So, As arch may suggest: wake up early, sit outside and listen to what you can hear. See how many songs you can isolate. Of those that you can, do you know what bird makes them? If not, try looking it up! You may find that even in our cities scattered across the continent and world, we have similar birds. 

Even though we’re not all sitting on the porch of the mess hall waiting for breakfast, we can all be sitting outside together, enjoying the morning sun and some not so silent tranquility.

For Arch’s “A Song A Day” blog, click Here.

If you want to try eBird, and connect to the larger online birding community, click Here.

Austin Kessler

Associate Director of Field Operations

Austin is the Associate Director of Field Operations, and joined the Gulch community Spring of 2019. He has spent most of the last decade in the Outdoor Education field, as a sea kayak guide, wilderness therapy guide and as a Group leader at Cottonwood Gulch.