Five Gulf Fritillaries, a half dozen Queens, a Checkerspot, a Skipper, lots of Swallowtails … the Route 66 Butterfly Cafe is open at El Potrero just outside the swing of the door of my winter quarters, the cowboy caravan. Three large pots together form this butterfly garden whose roots are held out of the way above the gopher runs: lots of striped and spotted “Pop Art” zinnias, a huge Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia) and a wide-sprawling shrub of “Blue Mist Flower” (Ageratum/Eupatorium/Conoclinium/Whateverit’snamedthismonth) throwing branches of robin’s egg-colored flossy and frothy blossoms every which way. I’m pleased to be the candy man for these beautiful little creatures, the fritillaries are mad for the Tithonia’s petals that are so flaming an orange that they shine purple, mad for the even brighter yellow disc flowers in a crown at the center of a bloom. Many of those petals don’t survive the visits of the giant grasshoppers, who are exquisites of the most discerning taste; the marauders are interested only in those orange butterfly landing pads of petals, and never bother to munch on a leaf or stem. One fritillary is holding itself rather oddly, and then I see it’s in the prayerful grip of a fat mantis who offers thanks for the butterfly manna. And then–a larger butterfly than the others … a Monarch! It seems for the first time I know why it is named thus, for a richer orange, walnutty-amber and bejewelled insect there can’t be. I’m aware how special is this visit to the late summer blow-out of the flowers, and have a little hope the Monarch won’t wander over near the Praying Mantis who with slight of folded hands turns the molecules of these butterflies into the eggs and egg case she looks soon to have to squeeze out …
People on the desert long enough
on a certain day about this time
in August feel
a shift in the afternoon light and
shadows and breeze, and the
oppression of heavy air
lifts off and away
and they let out a sigh
and breathe back in
a new Season
Day after day the temperature tries to reach 100 degrees, and I take it for granted that as a diamond is said to be, the Sonoran Desert Summer is forever. But then–there is a morning like this one come, when coffee in hand I slip into the patio in the dark and wonder what is wrong, what is different. It sinks in, the world has gone silent, no notes from Purple Martins echoing down from stars, all is still and empty, not even a cricket though as the Autumn will, when it comes to its own winding down, have nights again in cricket song. We can get pretty gladly through every afternoon now that still sizzles, every still mid-morning with its drenching humidity, for we know we’re on our way to one of those months whose weather the World must envy, months that bookend that hot time the snowbirds famously flee in panic. This year there have been few storms violent enough to alarm much, nor did the house get hit by lightning and neither did the power pole and lines so no blackouts of more than a few minutes, the WiFi box never got fried once much less its usual several times, no tornado-like microbursts to upend and throw the patio furniture around.
The wide drifts on every flat and mesa-top of brilliant yellow flowers of Hierba de San Nicolas (Thymophylla acerosa) aren’t making a grand show this year, though there are scattered plants low underfoot on Firesky Ridge and they are still in bud, seemingly staying in an arrested state. Neither have I noticed any vines of the naturalized, exquisitely blue Morning-glory, begin their climb through the branches of Creosote Bush along the roadside. In this area of Cascabel the rain accumulation is about an inch and a half less than last year’s Monsoon’s, could that be why we haven’t had this flower display that is one of the delights of late Summer? Or is it that the rains have come at the “wrong” moments? (Mason Pastures, only a few miles away, received much more rain as storm cells passed over them than has come to Ridge House, and their Native Grass Planting has come back to life and greenery spectacularly. It turned out all right to have taken that chance and not watered them from the irrigation well.) The crop of mesquite beans everywhere is no more than half its usual plenty, and many trees have no beans on them at all–another case of rain falling at the wrong time? Many local folk tell that a rain coming at the height of bloom will abort the work of those sweetly scented blossoms, or mold the anthers and pollen but also this year the cattle herd hasn’t gone after the pods on the ground in the manic and addictive way they always do. Perhaps the cows with their oh-so-discriminating palettes have warned the community we shouldn’t expect the flavor of this Fall’s ground flour to be any better than so-so!
At those Mason Pastures the brood of Ash-throated Flycatchers in the post have long ago hatched and fledged, and by tomorrow–September–they’ll have left for the Pacific Coast of Mexico. I’m filled with a longing to go with these birds when they leave for where Summer itself will be migrating too, let go all this Romance of Western Life …
After the Sun is up and I’m watering the flowers on the patio, what is unmistakably some vireo begins singing out on the Creosote Bush flats, and it’s one I haven’t heard before. Bob had listened to a differently-voiced vireo at his place a couple of ridges away and in much the same sort of upland desert country during Spring migration this year; he identified it as a Gray Vireo, one of the “uncommon and local” species sought out by naturalists who travel a long way to visit southern Arizona. The bird here stays close to the house a good while, long enough for me to find recordings of Gray Vireo songs on the Internet and play them right along with what was coming from a Palo Verde. The real and the recording matched note for note, and so a “Lifer” bird is delivered right to the house before I even get on all my work clothes!
Too many kingbirds on the wires with obviously notched tails, birds that haven’t read the field guides (as Ralph says)–that tail shape is supposed to be the mark of the Tropical Kingbird. They’re silent though, not like that bird at El Potrero that gave itself away with its chattering. In the study of natural history there must be art, intuition, science. Making of friends with the notion that there will be birds, butterflies and bugs, that will not be identified even if you hold them in your hand, also helps. To strive for a life solved of all mysteries is hubris.
A “bug” lands noisily on a shrub next to me, oh it’s large, frightening enough that no one would think of holding it in the hand to identify, or get too close to its mysteries. It is more than intriguing enough to demand being wondered over. Looks can be deceiving and that was what this insect unmistakably mimicking the Tarantula Hawk must be all about! I first take it for one of those Tarantula Hawks that are visiting the Graythorns but then see how its strong black legs bow out to the sides, then come back together and are held in a tight row where it clasps the stem (picture a scissors jack) and the head was that of a fly, not a wasp, with large and bulbous eyes sticking out at the sides. The colors perfectly match the wasp it must imitate–the same orange-red and black–and the pattern fools the eye of the human and I’d guess this insect’s prey. Much of the body is black, but it’s the very long, fat abdomen that is orange, rather than the wings. What the insect does on landing is fold those wings long and straight over the abdomen, the wings are clear with tiny black veins and see-through enough that it appears suddenly indeed that they are what’s orange like those of the big wasp! Have I been fooled myself all this time, or is this something appearing on this desert only lately? (Later I mention it to Kathleen, who tells she has been seeing this very monster insect the last couple of years at 3-Links and was also sure it is a Tarantula Hawk mimic. As it turns out we are not alone in seeing it, and it is indeed a newly arrived and spreading species come north from South of the Border. This “Mexican Robber Fly”, Archilestris magnificus, was first recorded north of The Border here only about 2007 and that first published photograph from Arizona then caused a sensation in the world of entomology. Lately it has suddenly crossed over from rarity to “oh, there’s another one” from Arivaca through Cochise County. It does not sip nectar or nip pollen like the Pepsis wasps, but is a voracious carnivore on the wing snagging bugs and insects who presume it is looking for either a flower or a Tarantula, not for them.
Nine teal drop out of the sky, skittering, falling, completely out of control but completely in control, land like cannonballs with such a splash that they cause a mini-tsunami against the bank of hard-grazed Barnyard Grass. One swims warily, quickly away from the truck, shows fully a wing speculum of cobalt blue … she reaches the far shore of Barnyard Grass, turns forty-five degrees and the gem of that speculum lights wildly into an emerald that would raise the avarice of a jewel thief eyeing the Topkapi. A Great Blue Heron is unmoving in this wild splash-down of Green-winged Teal though perhaps he’s grinding his mandibles over the fright it will have set off among what’s left of the huge Bullfrogs he hasn’t yet dispatched. Heron remains implacable, inscrutable. He has an image to maintain.
September, tomorrow, the month larger numbers of Great Blue Herons begin to arrive, northern birds that will stay for the Winter …
So when the shadows lengthen
leaves have turned to dust
first there’s Summer, then
I’ll let you in,
when it comes …
I watch the clouds go sailing
I watch the clock and Sun,
oh I watch myself
when it comes
–Rosanne Cash and John Levanthal, “September When It Comes”
At the far west end of the Botteri’s Pasture, an electric fence has to be unhooked and moved, where the line of it comes to the end insulator I find a very small woodpecker intricately patterned in black and white, headless and hollowed and left like a taxidermy skin, obviously left impaled there by one of the shrikes that have become so friendly towards me. Black and white bars, beautiful indeed, and Nancy confirms it with the Sibley’s as an immature Ladder-backed.
Huge hornworms of a strange shade of violet, with lateral light-colored stripes, are on the move across the pastures looking for–? more solanaceous plants to munch before they might turn into an equally huge hawkmoth? the right place for Gaia to wave Her wand and the worm become pupa, become moth?
A Harris’s Antelope Squirrel sings like a bird from the rubbled slopes of Saguaro Canyon, off to the East. The acoustics in there are like an amphitheater’s, how that little critter’s voice can carry, it blasts from the opening like a wind out of a tunnel.
Instead of Autumn leaves, we have the bright yellow-green large Sulphur Butterflies that swirl up and circle and dangle and dance as if they were maples and ash lifted in the wind.
In moving, raising or dropping any of the electric lines that (mostly!) keep the herd where I want them to clean off the coming winter pasture areas, I get close to the soil and grass. Today this brings me to find something strange, a small white clam shell that is stuck on a grass blade that holds it about eight inches above the ground. I have no place or way to carry it safely, to show to Ralph and Kathleen later, but I wrap it in a little paper and slip it inside the pocket tally book, and continue with the fence post chore. That ought to do, I hope, but later I’ve forgotten completely what I’ve done with it and when I get down on one knee so I can get at an invasive weed that wants knifing out, I lean upon the other knee and remember the shell as I hear something fragile crinkling its way into dust inside the cover of that tally book. Guess I won’t make a fossil-hunter. Ralph later tells me that a fossil shell is exactly what I had found, of a creature that had in some dim past geological era lived on a sea bottom there. It must have been on the surface this Spring after being exposed by winter rains, when a grass sprouted under it and lifted it into the air.
If a bird could be said to be cute, the Nashville Warbler at The Stockpond I saw during lunch would surely. What a pretty little, neatly marked migrant, seen through the windshield of the truck, flitting too fast to follow through the branches over the water.
We see and hear the Tropical Kingbird again, at El Potrero.
We get a steer, “The Big One” to jump into the stocktrailer and go off across the pass to Willcox, for the pastoralists’ dilemma that this life requires us and the animal we raise to see our way through psychologically and emotionally. The day is spectacular, one that makes us grateful for our days unseamed by clocking in and clocking out though we are imprisoned by beauty, and duty. The rolling hills and wide bajadas are green, and on the flattest middle reaches of this splendid Summer range, the whistles of Cassin’s Sparrows reach into the cab of the Silverado with its windows open, an unlooked for positive side of the air conditioning not working for years. One bird’s voice grows the louder as we pass, then fades behind us, and just when it disappears as we roll slowly along so as not to break a leaf spring another comes to be louder and that one fades. This happens four times, it is the year of the Cassin’s.
A goodly flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds lands and takes off, lands and takes off, at Mason Pastures. These are more than just stragglers that might have stayed behind when all the others went north from this part of Arizona in May, they must be birds returning from the North to spend the rest of the year among us again.
At El Potrero, I hear a call so unfamiliar to me that I don’t even have an idea what family of birds to think singer fits into. It’s loud, yet grasshopper like and chattering and then I see it–a kingbird and not just any kingbird, but a Tropical Kingbird. The thing displays and displays until I’m sure of what I’m looking at and then flies into a large mesquite shading my winter quarters there and promptly a Western Kingbird comes screaming through the air and dive-bombs the exotic visitor, chases it off, and there’s no time to pursue. Is it in post-breeding dispersal wanderlust, as it and many of its relatives take up? or has it been there all Summer, outside my awareness?
Two very gray-looking White-faced Ibis fly wing tip to wing tip low over my head at The Stockpond but are not tempted to land on the mud of its shore; they keep on their straight-southward path.
If not Autumn, then late sumer is icumen in: now who is an old and looked for friend rises and flashes and clicks over the grass–the first Red-winged Grasshopper. It speaks of livestock Fall Works to come, and that it’s time for pastures to be grazed down to their bones then tilled and planted in oats, wheat, barley and rye, and of the intense and wearying chores of irrigating them and getting them to sprout. The snapping of the Red-winged Grasshopper speaks of getting herd arranged in the upland country, the weaning of calves before their mammas go without them on that annual trek …