Now at last, the dawn comes in at the ridge above Pool Wash with a temperature of 71 degrees, though in the Mason Pastures it’s “only” just above 60 degrees. The humidity has gone up, too, to 50%, and the air is lush and soft, and rich smells well up from watered areas. The one Mexican Mallard is soon joined by his mate, whom he right off chases across the water, and they zoom around and around until she hits the bank running–literally. They leg it off at a running waddle into the bosque, and disappear. The pond edges flicker with sparrows, Summer Tanagers, orioles, warblers, flycatchers, kingbirds, hummingbirds, a Cooper’s Hawk, doves …
Bats and Nighthawks are taking their final sips as their shift ends, the woods around is dark and the creatures themselves invisible, but the pond surface catches enough dawn to show their reflections and so I can only see them upside down. Nothing is as it seems in the crepuscule.
I go about the usual circles, opening the irrigation, back to the pump to turn it on, out to the pastures to see that all is operating well and efficiently using that priceless water, adjust sprinklers, unscrew nozzles to clear out grit and pebbles the pump has sucked up and that will clog an opening (and so I get the usual soaking which still feels cold with the dawn standing at 50 degrees), then swing on back to The Stockpond to see who has come now the sun is heading towards the cliff bottoms. Just the usual neighbors hangin’ out at the cafe: warblers, sparrows, tanagers. Ernest Tubb undoubtedly in a cowboy hat twangs out from the dashboard and from 1950, “I Love You Because”. I sip coffee, munch a tortilla, munch on the day’s cow chores, munch on all the fences that are also twanging out and popping off their posts. I think back to when a ranch visitor almost twenty years ago asked me one dawn in the cooktent if I thought it was going to rain, and I answered him, “Yessir, eventually.”
No Western Tanagers, they seem to have left en masse.
The dark shade of large and dense mesquites invites me to take lunch up on the rim of an old stocktank that still collects the runoff from the hills across the road if a storm cell dumps water in just the right canyon above. I can look down from that bank top at the wheel lines and can see their watering stop when the pump shuts itself off before the 1 pm peak hour rates begin. The scenes below on the fields and above on the hills and mountains and the cool shade invite a siesta though I must beware the large ants foraging around me. At least I must not roll over on any. An orange from some place far from this foodshed is my desert, the peels are left for a favorite steer who has learned to eat them. A thought comes: we humans are no less (and no less legitimate) recyclers of biomass than are those mahogany-colored ants (or gophers for that matter), the difference being only of scale. We do it on a continental, even planetary, scale. I’ve been at the bottom of those orange skins becoming the humus of a spot very far from where they were brought into being by the natural processes and cycles in their homeland, or bioregion if you will, and I’ve been responsible for their being added to the biomass (and decomposing litter) in this one. Humus is neither created nor destroyed, but transferred from one place to another? Multiply that by the rest of what I eat in a day, and that again by 7 billion of us, and we will know that indeed we are changing more than just the Earth’s climate. Will the result be any less “natural” an outcome than what should have happened here without us?
The mesquites are gravid with pods, though many trees are still in bloom and I take in delicious, deep drafts of the sweetness, allergies be damned. The calves are eating the flower spikes as if they were popsicles, their mammas reaching higher for the even headier and protein-rich catkins of Catclaw Acacia, with blossoms that fill the air with an indescribably rich fragrance one might only come on in perfume shops hidden down tangled alleys of old Mombasa.
Seven almost-grown Mule Deer join me on the pasture as I head out across to turn down the risers to conserve untold thousands of gallons of water that would keep flowing out if I didn’t. It is always a big hassle to do this, but I don’t dare waver from the chore. The deer are unsure of me yet also quite unafraid and they let me approach closely as I tend to my own business at hand. They come to graze on the yellow sweet-clover which in its tall drifts is loudly abuzz with honeybees, and there is the maturing barley, oats, wheat and rye, the globemallow, bermudagrass and saltweed for them and the javelina, Coues’ Deer, jackrabbits and cottontails–and the cattle.
These Mule Deer have the same power to enchant as the Catclaw blooming at the pastures’ edges, are so startling in their near-tameness as to seem visitors from one of the Yaqui ania “dream worlds” (if dream they be) where all is flowery and the streams do run. The Yaquis would understand how all in the crepuscule here is not as it appears, living as they do at the other book-end of this Sonoran Desert where their own rio comes to the sea, or at least used to. As I learned from spending a winter in the extreme south of Sonora, everyday life at the opposite shore of this desert is in many ways like ours, at least here in this wild valley of unpaved roads and people who know that as with the word “cowboy”, “neighbor” is both noun and verb.
The physical surroundings of that far land in Sonora take little adjusting to if once you have become at-home on the San Pedro, and I look up from the Mule Deer to hills and peaks that remind me of that beloved part of Mexico. The colors at this season, above the lush riverbottom flats I and the deer stand on, are the same grays and pale browns of the monte mojino–the “tropical deciduous forest”–of Alamos, only here the trees and shrubs are shorter, with no closed canopy because we are much colder though that is hard to remember just now with the afternoon temperatures always in the 90s and very soon in the 100s. Our grays and browns are even more pronounced than usual, because the last rains of any note fell eight months ago on this range. We end up with no closed canopy here on our hills not only because of the cold, but because of the dryness: it looks like every last Foothills Paloverde up there has gone from green to brown and died outright from the drought. The O’odham believe that saguaros we see had once been individual people, and so I can imagine the few of these cactus trees that we look up at on those heat-shattered hills among the dead paloverdes are longing for the arrival of the temporales. The saguaros struggled to bloom this year, and none of them flowered right around here. Will it rain this summer? Will it ever rain again? Yessir, eventually.
A lone Meadowlark–surely this one will be the last?
Another delicious native green, “verdolaga”, is germinating. It is summer, not spring, fare, and it’s great with Saguaro Juniper beef, sauteed onions … oh, and hot chiles!
Full Moon is lowering itself towards the crest of the Rincon when I leave in the “dark” and thread the ridge above Pool Wash and slowly lower myself towards the canyon bottom and out on the Cascabel Road. The grand, bare cliffs are all in a glowing mist, a world that in this moonlight is there and is not there. Nighthawks are purring loudly and then softly, and from every knoll and canyon bottom rings out Whit-will-do! Whit-will-do! of Brown-crested Flycatchers … the early bird catches the cicada. On the road drive to the pastures the air is sweet and cool on my face. Owl is going home, Poorwills fly up from the gravel or flicker into my headlights, kangaroo rats bounce and jackrabbits try my patience when they decide that safety lies under turning truck wheels and not in the creosote flats they could peel off to instead.
My chest aches in the cold air, but then again it has done since I got knocked face-down flat to the ground yesterday afternoon by the electric fence when after crawling under and to the other side of it, I lost balance while I was getting to my feet and leaned back enough to lay the wire across the nape of my neck … bang! I long to direct the herd grazing these bottomland pastures from horseback alone, abandon the wires and the batteries and the electricity. The temperature and Moon are dropping, and I get the impossible pleasure of seeing four moonsets in succession, over this ridge or that, or when Moon snuggles himself into one gap in the mountains or other while I myself swing around north and south to drop cowboy gates and open hydrants out on the pastures …
Bright his smile may be, but his night at The Stockpond is far from a silent one. The dark of the mesquite bosque is all sound and singing–Cardinal, Yellow Warbler, Bewick’s Wren, Lucy’s Warbler, chats (lots of chats), tanagers, grosbeaks, Mourning Doves, Bell’s Vireos, kingbirds, House Finches, and a Vermillion Flycatcher that’s dancing mid-air. While singing out, he slowly crosses high over the pond, demanding of the avian world, “Oh, am I a stud, or what? Dig me!!” The fiery red little bird likely had done that through the whole night, dancing in Moon’s follow spot. The pair of Mexican Mallard swim around each other, painting yin-yang symbols with silvery water.
Later in the bright morning sky three Purple Martins, two males and a female, are sewing patterns on the blue, letting out far-carrying notes, twings and plangs in a courtship danse apache among two rivals and their would-be mate. Below in the mesquite edges and the weeds growing ever taller fledgling Lesser Goldfinches are complaining to their parents that not enough bacon has been brought home lately, “you don’t expect us to go out and get it ourselves … do you?” My life as ranch hand with its shocks by electric fences and lightning seems as tenuous as that of the baby bird whom I’d just saved from a pool of irrigation water in which it had wet its feathers thoroughly. I can decide to rescue it if I can as validly decide to leave it to drown, though all I probably did was save it as a fresh meal for a coyote. So be it. I put it way off into the grass, where it will stay hidden at least for a while, could dry out after all and end up changing the entire course of Evolution.
This soft, warm dawn invited the toloache to open its huge white trumpets on the road edge outside the main gate of Mason’s, their perfume drifts out visions of Georgia O’Keefe and other shamans who came before her, of O’Keefe’s revelations to us of a new worldview, of new worldviews revealed to Native Americans through ceremony using the plant, the glowing petals speak too of rites of passage and the passage of spring into summer. I must take all the pleasure I can from the sight of this spectacular plant now, for soon enough the road grader will come along and knife off all the gravel edges and then some, all the way up to our fence, Cochise County having proven the way it has that it will not suffer wildflowers to brighten this road any longer.
Once inside the gates and down to The Stockpond, I find another Spotted Sandpiper is there teetering through the mud, probably for the day. It should be about the last one that passes north. Through the increasing heat (just under 100 degrees again) the first Purple Martins that will fly low enough to skim the pond surface with open bill come along. There are only a few, but soon there will be large numbers of them dropping in for a drink before they return home to their saguaro mansions in which they nest up on the hills and low mountains. The birds must come from a good distance out on the desert; there aren’t very many large saguaros right around here.
After I move each of the wheel lines sixty feet to the north for their next set of waterings early tomorrow, a Swainson’s Hawk lands at the edge of the large puddle left out in the open where the irrigator tractor had been. Only 125 feet away from me the handsome bird of prey drinks at leisure, and acts like he’s not the least bit afraid of me. I come back a while later and find the hawk gone, but other raptors are there aplenty: Turkey Vultures. The ones who have already drunk their fill are standing around on the grass, or are perched on the pipe axles, and at the tractor itself one is sitting in the center atop the engine hood and each of the four wheels are topped off by a single big bird, some staring out at the countryside, some with wings spread in what The Turkey Vulture Society calls “horaltic pose”. (Imagine, a Turkey Vulture society!) The wheel line tractor fitted up as it was with black-feathered vultures looked appropriately like a Victorian hearse …
Dawn brings with it temperatures in the upper 40s still. Chunks of cobalt, chunks of lapis take wing–many Blue Grosbeaks, and Lazuli Buntings. In the gray light, a Lucy’s Warbler is jumping in and out of the cavity in the railroad tie gate post in which one of those birds was busily putting in a nest a bit less than a month ago; I thought it had been abandoned. There are many chirping babies around and if I remember, Lucy’s fledge with a startling quickness.
While I sit in the pickup sipping coffee after completing irrigation rounds, a Gray Fox comes along to get a drink at the pond. A beautiful animal, it is–red fur on its legs, and a swath of red that runs diagonally from its red ears down the sides of its body. It sits over there for a good long while, black-tipped tail draped elegantly, but acts nervously about something beyond it most of the time though it didn’t seem to care about me. Around him many swallows are flying in for quick on-the-wing dips of their bills into the water, and there’s a real “mess” of tanagers, of both species, coming to drink as well. One of them is a first year male Summer Tanager in that peculiar transition to adult plumage: green, blotched with red all over like either I’m seeing spots before my eyes or he has some dreadful tanager pox.
Sapphire blue damselflies are alighting on the irrigation hoses wherever the units have put out enough water to build little ponds that will of course drain away. The air has heated to just short of 100 degrees, and the grassland birds have discovered quite the way to stay comfortable: with the humidity at 4%, the seventy-foot wide zone of wet soil dwn the center of which the wheel lines sit becomes a giant evaporative cooler, and the upper spokes of the wheels of the units are crowded with birds who get as high as they can up under the wide, flat aluminum “tire” so it can shade them. Close up under one wheel canopy alone there were stuffed a Lark Sparrow, a Cassin’s Kingbird, and two Western Kingbirds, obviously enjoying that shade and “cool”!
Western Tanagers must now be at the height of their numbers here, and we are fortunate to have them grace our landscape for a few short weeks every spring as their crowd flows north along “lush” Southwestern river valleys. From here at a certain moment they also migrate vertically to the coldest tops of the Rincon and the Catalinas, more than a mile above us. Every time I drive down The Lane the tanagers (often very handsome males) swing out from the branches along the sides and fly off in front of the truck for a ways along the track.
The species is a poster bird for the importance of preserving such valleys as this in the region, because it illustrates well what has been dawning on ecologists and biologists in recent years: the mountains of North America are re-populated every summer with many birds that come north along the ground between those mountain ranges, rather than along invisible routes high overhead. Much more use of places like the San Pedro and Santa Cruz valleys, the Lower Colorado, and the Rio Grande is made by the winged travelers than had been suspected. All along the way once they’ve left their wintering southern zones, the birds need amenities on the ground and each of these valleys has its human supporting and volunteer groups of naturalists and birders determined to see those amenities remain intact and available. It is hard to determine just how important having active agricultural lands like the Mason Pastures is to the continuing health of the West’s avifauna, but it doesn’t take much to imagine what would be the immediate and local effect of turning off the outflow pipe to The Stockpond, or of no longer watering these pastures that are in their way recreated grasslands.
The San Pedro’s “Ribbon of Green” itself certainly in importance is of the first magnitude, but for those other Southwestern watercourses there are claims made about the avifauna and its migration corridor that are indistinguishable from what is said about the San Pedro. It is pronounced for each valley and watershed by their fans, supporters and resident naturalists, This is the most important place! We have more migrants than anywhere! (an example: “Flora and Fauna in the Proposed National Heritage Area […] More than 400 species of birds […] About 200 migrating bird species; the largest number in the United States […] One area is ranked as the most critical area for biological conservation in Arizona […]” This is not the ridge-to-ridge watershed of the San Pedro that is being talked about here: it is the proposed Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area (see: http://www.santacruzheritage.org/files/file/chapter_03_smaller.pdf .)
Look long enough through many such papers available online and one can’t help but see the similarities to how one oppressed people or another around the world guarantee their being kept down when among themselves they compete for the title of most exploited or the most meanly treated. It plays right in with the exploiters’ winning game of keeping people from uniting and actually doing something about an insufferable reality. Determining once and for all which one of our Southwestern watersheds should get the title for most biologically important and so most-in-need-of-support is not a harmless academic exercise, for thinking within those frames would likely increase the possibility that the other places in the list be left to disintegrate to a perhaps unsalvageable state. Each corridor should be considered to have an importance of the first magnitude, for after all any number of different stars carry that label and the label still be wholly correct for each. The Colorado, the Santa Cruz, the San Pedro and the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo should be seen as a single, organic entity, and that no one of these is more significant than the others, since it will probably not preserve the wildness of any one of these “flyways” (or by extension, the faunal zones between here and the Arctic re-occupied every summer by these sojourners) if there is done anything less than protecting all four of them together.
Was The Stockpond ever “ducky” this morning: besides the pair of Mexican Mallards, there were three Gadwall and a Green-winged Teal working over the mud furiously and upending themselves to dabble on the bottom and in the bases of water weeds and rushes. So much, I’ll guess, for nymphs and eggs of dragonflies, damselflies and darners!
A jewel of a male Broad-billed Hummingbird came to sit at my shoulder for a little while on the top strand of a barbed wire fence, allowing me to take in every detail of the exquisite little thing. He dropped, chipping away happily, to a spray of Copper Globemallow where he worked on every flower before vanishing in a buzz. (The House Finches also come to the Globemallow: they love to munch on the freshly opened petals, the same way they will go after the flowers of winter annuals, especially pansies and petunias, and wipe out displays in the gardens of the Southwest’s desert oasis cities.)
A mixed group of Lucy’s Warblers and Western Tanagers come at lunchtime to splash and fluff and bath at the base of the hydrant riser at The Stockpond.
Birds of gold, glittering on the edges of every little muddy bay of The Stockpond. Common Yellowthroats, several Western Tanagers, Yellow and Wilson’s warblers. The Yellow Warblers are given the bum’s rush by several Lucy’s; they’re chased off. That done, the Lucy’s “high tail” it to the other side of the pond to perch instead around the hydrant where the cleanest water is to be enjoyed. Beyond all these birds occupied with slacking their thirst, Silver-leafed Nightshade makes a bank of purple flowers. The Wilson’s Warblers should be near the end of their time here, and these will indeed turn out to be the last seen this migration. Their numbers were noticeably down over those of past years, and the timespan of their passage (less than a month) also seemed much shortened.
Later at lunch, a (the same?) Spotted Sandpiper returns to spend the day, and many more Western Tanagers are hanging out at this their favorite waterhole for now. Cliff Swallows zoom in and zoom out, dipping to the water surface in their low swing of flight. A female Summer Tanager gathers nesting material along the flat shore at the west side, and there come along a last pair of White-crowned Sparrows to have a drink before they set off northward and soon out of Arizona for the summer.
The plaintive cries of a Poorwill came up from the banks of Pool Wash in the earliest dawn, as I was packing the truck to get down to the pastures. They’ve hardly been heard since those evenings more than two months ago when the birds seemed everywhere from Mason’s to here, on the road, in the air, or calling.
After I’d got the water going, I drove to the west end of the fenceline between #1 and #2 pastures, which affords a good view of sprinkler head problems in the line across to the south. I was distracted from work, though, by a bobcat running from the middle of that pasture to the protection of the bosque along The River. Actually it was trying to escape from a raven that was harassing it likely just in devilish fun, as ravens seem wont to have. Then just as the bobcat disappeared into the mesquital: another cat, much larger than a house cat but not as big as the bobcat, and of black color, came scampering along in the same direction and also from the middle of the field but in a line further away from me. It was gone too quickly to get the binoculars laid on it and focussed. I’m thinking this was yet one more (of the many talked about when people here are feeling safe) sightings of our ever-elusive-but-never-to-be-documented Jaguarundi.
If such an animal were to be proven resident in this valley, the entire history and game of keeping “The River” the marvel that it remains would be changed in an instant. Myself I have full confidence that I have seen the critter here and more than once, sometimes close enough to study it well and at leisure, sometimes just a flash of body and incredibly long tail crossing Cascabel Road or a ranch road at dusk or dawn especially when the road was in such bad shape that I couldn’t go faster than five mph in the old Ford 100 pickup. The Jaguarundi hereabouts fills the same place in after-dinner conversations, when people are feeling expansive and out of earshot of hostile sceptics, as that held by the Onza in campfire talk in the remote monte of Sonora, or by the dreaded Escorpion that “is” an iguana-like reptile with poison-dripping fangs high in the rainforest trees in Costa Rica, or by the Chupacabras that stalks the corrals out on the Mexican deserts. Erudite biologists and people like Nathan Sayre whose research is always impeccable state that Jaguarundi being seen here is an impossibility, end of conversation! … yet we are tantalized by write-ups like that of the naturalist Stan Tekiela, in his book, “Mammals of Arizona Field Guide”:
Rare […] Very secretive, with a range from South and Central America into southern Arizona […] occasionally one jaguarundi is seen […] It is possible that some of these are the offspring of feral house cats. There are also reports of captive jaguarundi escaping and living in the wild.
I drive off soon as I can manage and find a phone, and call our naturalist Ralph W. who has been setting out cameras for years trying to nail down for us once this Holy Grail of our conservation. Later in the morning he and Kathleen and I hunt for tracks and try to determine if there’s enough evidence to warrant doing another camera project, but we don’t find much in the way of exciting clues. We do come on Badger sign, and an interwoven set of curving lines in the flour-like dust that tell where two rattlesnakes became more than strangers in the Sonoran Desert night–as I followed their movement through the powder and imagined the grace of what went on, in my mind’s ear there played the Ravel “Bolero”.
A Spotted Sandpiper is visiting the mud shore of The Stockpond again.