All posts by Cindy Salo

September 28, 2017 – Chant of the Wanderers

The air freshened at last (even became shockingly brisk when a couple recent nights dropped down into the 30s!) and birds are leaving, birds are arriving, and maybe most interesting of all, birds are wandering.

The avian life on The River this September has been thrilling, starting with that friendly Eastern Kingbird that kept me company awhile on the 3rd of the month, for one day perched mostly on the low electric cattle fence wire when the plague of grasshoppers the likes of which I haven’t seen was in its first few days upon us.  I’ve come now to expect an Eastern Kingbird to wander through during this season: they’ve been late Summer/early Autumn visitors on one side of the San Pedro or the other over the years.  They’re always alone, usually here for a brief moment, always very beautiful and always much harassed by the (Wild Wild) Western Kingbirds who seem to think this most dapper of their fellows is “a greenhorn, just escaped from town” and they’ll get some kicks screaming out at him, “Dance, ya varmint!”

Early in the second week of the month, on a day when I was getting the workings of the Winter pasture planting underway in earnest and heading to climb into the Silverado here on Firesky Ridge before the shine of the first rays of Sun, from the North was coming toward Ridge House a broad dark line of large birds.  It seemed a huge, floating arrow pointing South that told, “This way, if you’re sane!”  Ibis?  I’d seen ibis flocks passing in other years, but far higher overhead than is this ridgetop … and I could hear these as they got closer making strange little sounds.  (The only ibis I’d ever heard being vocal were the Hadada Ibis that often flew over the farm in Kenya, loud, raucously calling out and sounding just like that old time comedian, Steve Allen, “Schmock!  Schmock!  Schmock!”)  They were geese, Greater White-fronted Geese heading this way and slightly off towards the River–fifty of them!  They passed the backdrop of the high mountain that was painted in that glorious pink glow that comes to it in the seconds before sunrise, the big flock a telephone pole’s height above me and just off the point of Firesky Ridge, little white faces plainly visible, with little sweet and chirpy honks from the face of this one or that scattered up and down their long line.  I know my jaw was dropped wide open while I stared at those faces and wings, while they all passed by so close and low it seemed in slow motion.

“Our family” of Mexican Mallards has returned to The Stockpond, five to eight of them there most every day and over the last two weeks they’ve been kept company by a young and almost fearless Great Blue Heron.  Just before Heron arrived, the Pond had become so full of Bullfrogs that the outward circle of its water would be a complete froth of them jumping wildly from the banks and skipping four or five times across its surface before they’d plunge out of sight, all with attendant screeches and yurps.  I expect by now Heron has about cleared them off and is going to have to search out a newly laid sideboard of frogs’ legs elsewhere.  It’s the end of the Purple Martins for this year–none have been in the air since a good many passed over The Pond a few days ago, but there are still swallows aplenty in mixed species flocks that suddenly surround me, swirl around and around scooping up the awfully plentiful bugs (and I do mean, awful) of this Autumn, then they swirl in their circles on South and gone.  There’s a chance a cuckoo or two still lurk but they’ve probably flown; I saw two different ones just before the middle of the month, both gliding gracefully across Cascabel Road and into mesquites far from the River bank, but it’s been a long time since any have called.

Just after the middle of the month a single, very handsomely-plumaged Wilson’s Warbler hopped in and out of the branches at the Pond’s edge when I was having lunch there; it is the only one I have seen in the whole of 2017, there were none in the Spring where in recent past it had been one of our major migrants and its beauty a major enjoyment, and it makes me nervous that this could well be the only one of the Autumn.  Our Tom Talbott did report in mid-April that he saw one of these warblers at Sweetwater’s El Potrero Farm. Cornell tells that this bird’s numbers have declined by by more than 60% in the last 50 years.  That same day as I was setting irrigation at dawn what was unmistakably a shorebird’s call began drifting down to pasture from high above, from another lone bird.  Though about Whimbrel-sized it wasn’t one of those, not with that voice–and the bill was nowhere near the size of a Long-billed Curlew’s.  I could only look away from what I was doing and up at it for a second at a time, having to keep close watch as I did on the wheel lines powering up, well, unless I was willing to chance the explosion of a water main deep under me there was no way I could follow this bird’s every move.  This sort of thing happens so often as to make me think those spirits on the mountains roundabout have found something good to tease me with.  Maddening, but a rare bird identified has to take second place behind keeping the herd in graze  … I knew this one was something unfamiliar to me and my brief moments stolen away from the risky work of the moment to see it as it passed South added to its mystery.  Recordings of Marbled Godwit I listened to later in the evening online sounded close to what I heard but that many weary hours later my memory could make it what it was I wanted the bird to have sounded like.  So–it shouldn’t be writ down as anything other than a possible sighting.  (Chris tells me he’s seen a “Garbled Modwit” and that I might have too!)

As the month has worn down, the daily temperatures have soared skyward again (“unseasonably high” as the radio tells–what does that mean any more?), to the point now where my workshirts already by 9 am show dark drenched patches and the day’s first of many lines of salt-rhyme as the breezes that come and go evaporate the wet and evaporative cool me.  The Cassin’s and Western kingbirds aren’t getting a single hint it’s time to leave–unless they’re aware of the days becoming shorter as rapidly as they appear to be.  Those lively and engaging birds are everywhere, maybe they’ll stay on so long as the grasshoppers remain in their unsettling cloud-like masses and I’d say that will be a while what with all the small instars still appearing.  The first Harrier tilted in on the day five of us were planting seed for Winter pastures, Sept. 26th, and the next day out on the rolling grass along the wheel lines I was greeted by eight Western Meadowlarks that must’ve arrived that morning, the first of this “Winter” … um, it’s going to be in the upper 90s the coming week in October, fellas!  (I’ve never seen more than one or two of that species when they first come to these pastures and usually all of them disappear shortly after that and no more seen for two or three weeks, I’ve presumed they get replaced and added to by new arrivals.)  The handsome Brewer’s Blackbirds, too, have come of a sudden, and as with the meadowlarks the flock of them and I played back and forth around each other as I set the nozzles straight or rolled the lines level and meanwhile, our little Pond was a sight for a couple days in this last week of the month: a Great Blue Heron, eight Mexican Mallards, a fine bunch of Cinnamon Teal coming out of eclipse with some looking strangely like Redheads, and a White-faced Ibis (dark-faced at this season) hung out together amiably, and they all grew to have so little fear of me that if they took wing at all any time I’d draw near, it was only to cross to the other bank to continue their foraging and probing and frog-gigging.  The ibis ignored me, and just wandered along until he eventually caught up with the rest of the party once he’d relaxedly circled The Stockpond.

When the teal come to us in these Autumns on The River, for a few days they’re jumpy as those grasshoppers, take off the moment a vehicle comes even remotely in their sight.  (They almost always leave the Mexican Mallards behind, who might wonder about the need for all the commotion.)  The teal would circle a time or two and then go looking elsewhere–but this year there doesn’t seem to be an “elsewhere” for them with other ponds being dry and soon they come back and plow down into the water, and soon they, too, get used to me and the trucks.  I’ve never seen ducks enjoy their bathtub like these Cinnamons!  They wildly, feverishly hunt for food and dabble and tip constantly, then all at once the whole lot just wants to bathe and preen and tease each other in peeping mock battles.  At some point it all looks like a pool party, one teal and another taking quick turns at jumping straight up off the water, curve in a low arc a couple feet above the surface, tuck their head and drop like a bomb straight down, with such force that they disappear for a moment as if they were Diving and not Dabbling Ducks.  They cross each other in mid-air ballet, splash into the center of the flock or some go to the outside, sometimes barely miss each other–there’s one female that loves doing this so much that I swear I hear her yell out, “Cannonball!” in her native Tealish.  They all splash, stretch, scoot about flapping and flopping and throwing water at themselves, stand and shake and love trying to nip their neighbors, who always draw back enough to stay barely out of reach.  One gets so worked up in the fun that she time and again curves her head down in front of her, keeps stretching and pushing her head under her breast and backwards underneath her until at one point the rest of her body can’t help but come along behind her and she does a very neat underwater tumble roll, her body flipping upside down above the water and then spinning sideways until she suddenly finds herself rolled back upright.  “Didja see that?”  Her mates get irritated by these performances.

By the third week of September our Ash-throated Flycatchers and Brown-crested Flycatchers  of Summer are supposed to have vacated these ranges and gone off South–supposed to, but I’m not sure how to sort out what flycatchers of the genus Myiarchus I see most every year later than that in Autumn, during a time after none of the other species have been present for weeks. These late Myiarchus in question I’ve written up as Dusky-capped in transit to the deep Neotropics, that spend a few days with us after having left their high country to the West.  They have just looked different somehow from the Ash-throateds I’d got chummy with all through the Summer.  Talk about birdy “dastardly duos” … I’d have to have both in the hand and even then, can Ash-throated that are still on the young side at this time of year be in the size range of the Dusky-capped?  These autumnal mystery Myiarchus are always silent, well they have been at least until this season when outside the Ridge House and from just down over the lip of the canyon a set of calls was reaching my ears on a morning a few days before the end of the month.  There was something shorebird-like in those notes (it’s amazing how many shorebirds can turn up here) so they had to be looked into, expecting as I did that yet something else weird was in passage like the other many surprises September can bring.  But, here in the mesquite that is so dwarfed and gnarled on these uplands was a pair of bright Myiarchus flycatchers, chattering back and forth and they sure looked like those small and slim Dusky-cappeds.  A run back into the house to the computer (yeeks, and I was on my way to work …) to Xeno-canto’s bird song website allowed quick elimination of that as the species but instead what they did sound unmistakably like were some of the recordings of Brown-cresteds.  (One can listen to 1,068 different listings of those alone, on this “citizen scientist” site, Xeno-canto: http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Myiarchus-tyrannulus ; more might have been added while I was typing this.)  Published bird calendars be damned, the Tyrant Flycatcher is The Wanderer incarnate: Ash-throateds turn up on the Eastern Seaboard much later than this, Dusky-cappeds can end up in Colorado in the Winter, our Western Kingbirds sometimes reach the Maritimes apparently stopped only by the North Atlantic Ocean, Tropical Kingbirds of Mexico can set out for British Columbia in the Autumn, this list likely tells of birds fledged this year who are the ones get that bug to wander.  What it for sure doesn’t tell is if what I’ve seen is Dusky-capped or not but I still think at least a few of those late season mystery flycatchers have been, if my ability to read the whole aura of a bird is anything to trust.

Tyrant Flycatchers leaving and going every direction of the compass is one of the markers of those change-of-seasons here that people unfamiliar with life on the ground claim we don’t have.  On the human side among us who tramp endlessly across these lands in everyday work either on foot or on horseback for Saguaro-Juniper, the planting of the Winter forage acres for our herd at Mason Pasture is one of these thought-inspiring, soul-inquiring markers of Summer into Autumn.  How does it come around so fast, the picking up of this massive chore, the seeing get done this thing that so much depends on?  By the 27th of September this year those pastures had been mowed, ripped, disced, planted and the soil dragged like a comforter over those billions of wheat, rye, oats and barley seeds laid down–a full two week process, not counting the pulling of mesquite that was labored over starting much earlier in the Summer.  One last chore remained after all the helpful crews had gone, and that was to get the wheel line irrigators into their first places for watering to begin the next dawn.  It seemed miles were to go before I’d sleep, when the last loose ends of the wheel lines will have been humped and curved and bullied into their places.  Only this one in #3 Pasture remained yet to get arranged, and it sat deeply tangled in tall grass and native forbs. The work of getting that very long sideroll free-moving flushed many little dark Lincoln’s Sparrow’s, one after the other after the other: there haven’t been this many of those sparrows around for a number of years though if their recent habits hold true, they’ll stay awhile then slowly their numbers will dribble down as, I presume, most keep heading on into Mexico.  There was a Savannah or two as well, and Vespers.  A number of Marsh Wrens also flew up from my feet, each moving some yards ahead and then dropping down and out of sight.  Will they stick around this year through the Winter, like they used to?

The day was growing older, and with no luxury of time allowing a going off for bird observation I heard to the North yet one more mystery call daring me to guess who might be making it.  Three syllables, over and over, high against the puff-cloud sky Monsoon can leave behind, then it would be beyond the bermudagrass half of that pasture, where the bosque was growing taller with every year.  The calls were moving from East to West, its author unfindable against the brightness.  There was in the sounds the quality of those bold notes of the Abert’s Towhee, the loneliness of the shorebird, and something of a puppy’s squeeze toy … Bub-uhh-WHEET! Bub-uhh-WHEET! … and then of course everything went all quiet just when I couldn’t stand it any more and had begrudgingly dropped my chore to check out what was going on.  Then it came from behind me, above but now much closer.  I turned from the wheel line (which anyway had pulled itself into gigantic pretzels hooking around drifts of Camphorweed and I wasn’t much wanting to tackle the mess), and saw a large, extra-regal looking kingbird.  It was swooping out from a long perch in a big mesquite tree top catching one insect quickly after another but still staying a good ways off from me … I lifted the binoculars finally and saw that what I’d thought was a large black beetle in its bill was no beetle, but the bill itself.  The dark mask, the coloring, the unique call, the stance, the size (larger than any other kingbird usually around), its solitariness with none of our regular kingbird crew daring to divebomb or chase it, all those things said, “Thick-billed Kingbird”, the sight of which would make for the reddest of red-letter days in a birder’s journal.  How could I possibly take time away from a crucial project that there’s no choice about getting finished or not, and get over to that hedgerow of large mesquite and not have the bird fly off and take the last of its diagnostic marks with it?  I had to get close enough for a look at its tail for white edges or pale end-band or a white tip, took a few steps towards it slowly and unaggressively but the bird spread wing and was lifted into the wind that all kingbirds own.  But it banked, turned 180 degrees and sailed right for me, lowering as it came, until it hovered for moments not twenty feet over my head, catching bugs and giving a grand aerial performance that left me open-jawed.  There were no white outer lines on that tail used as rudder and with such accomplishment, no buff, nor any appearance of its being a wide brush just barely dipped into white paint.  A Thick-billed Kingbird, a stray, come North from the Borderline canyons and destined for the Colorado River beyond Arizona’s Great Western Desert?  South from one of the nesting spots they sometimes choose along the San Pedro?  It stayed in sight and within hearing there the rest of the day, and revisiting it a few times was something I couldn’t resist doing.  It kept calling me back.  The next day it was gone, maybe turned around right here and made way for the Mexican Riviera.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKCmmig79mM

August 2, 2017

We built it, but they didn’t come.

Not to Mason Pastures, at least–the Cassin’s Sparrows. Over the last year how we’ve worked at preparing for them a habitat they’d never resist settling down in! How many hours did Alex, especially, fork and dig and pull Burroweed in the top end of #3 Pasture to make swaths that would fill (we hoped) with native grasses, and so create a mosaic of plant cover the Cassin’s would surely be skylarking over once The Rains began? We’ve been like royalists preparing a palace for a monarch in exile and hoping it will be found acceptable and that he deigns to live in it. But no … unlike last year and the year before there is no sad, sweet notes lowering see-saw fashion, bursting out in joy from a descending Cassin’s Sparrow. Since the morning of our first Monsoon thunderstorm drenching my ears have been listening for that so lovely a song from that so plain a bird. This heavy-sweat morning I stroll through that now very natural looking mosaic, thrilled by just how splendidly successful those native grasses are. Their masses of flowers, of Three Awns, Spike Dropseed, Cane Beardgrass and various Gramas, wave in a saturated breeze, have waved to those sparrows as those birds must have passed overhead and on north.

They didn’t go much further north, though.

Soon after Monsoon began in earnest I caught through the open truck window those uniquely beautiful notes of this sparrow as I’d drive south from El Potrero for a work day at Mason Pastures. That was in the dawn of the 17th of July, when I heard two different males letting loose their courtship song, the first near Canyon Road and the second about a third of a mile further on. While famous for being a bird of the grasslands and prairie (and that is what we have been trying to recreate for them in #3 Pasture) in Cascabel they have a penchant for mounded slopes reaching up to mesa tops, covered densely in creosote bush filled between with the lush and varied grasses of Summer, tangled morning glories, Blazing Stars and the huge, fantastically fragrant flowers of yellow Devil’s Claw. Every passing week has brought more and more of this singing. Along with the heady perfume of uncountable small huizache trees in bloom, the music lilts in through the window in turns as I drive through the territory set up by one sparrow and into the territory set up by the next, until finally I no longer try to count how many birds there might be all along the way of my daily travel to the pastures. I presume other birds keep arriving and even now are setting up their courts. By last Friday there was one singing from a shrub-top or skylarking every few hundred yards from Canyon Road all the way to our horseshoer’s yurt, then well beyond that I heard one between the River side of the paved road and The Manor House of 3-Links, as I was making my way to check on the herd we have doing tumbleweed control and growing fat on the bermudagrass exploding in the old ag bottomlands there as the rainfall mounts. Cassin’s are singing at the bottom of Pool Wash, and as I drive up the steep track to Ridge House I hear scattered individuals singing at an agreed upon distance between them up that canyon and who’d know how far east towards the massif of Muleshoe? Not one has been heard again at our own irrigated pastures, not by me at least … maybe by a raccoon or coati or bobcat when I wasn’t there … now it is weeks later than when they’d been singing at Mason’s a year ago and I expect the birds are by this time all where they’re going to be, i.e., elsewhere. I’ll have to concede that these monarchs dressed as monks didn’t look with favor on that palace we built them. Ah yes, Nature bats last and will have things Her way no matter the hubris that is our planning and, good grief, managing. I’ll keep in mind that for three seasons the Botteri’s Sparrows were with us in the pasture immediately to the south, but stayed there only so long as its management was dictated by the needs of cows; it may be coincidence, but once I switched away from cows to published land use guidelines that cater to that particular bird whose conservation has naturalists fretful over its future, no more have been heard or seen by us …

If governance or stewardship must be management, then it is inherently destructive, for the same reasons that command economies are inherently destructive. Human beings can’t know enough to manage life on earth, and efforts to subjugate and reorganize life under human command oppose and destroy the very cocreativity that’s needed to cultivate the growth of symbiotic harmonies. But the problem here is in the concept of governance or stewardship. The problem is that benign command is the slavemaster’s misconception of stewardship […]
–Jim Corbett, “Sanctuary for All Life: The Cowbalah of Jim Corbett” [2005, Daniel Baker, ed.]

By the 29th of July El Potrero had had the great gift of more than nine inches of rain in four weeks, and Pat, [a friend] and I were eager to ride up on the Saguaro-Juniper wildlands on that morning and take in the splendor of the flowers and fragrances and green velvet mountains. We saddled our horses and set out with that kind of light heart uniquely born of the return of rain and that all people who live on this desert come to know, and as soon as we got to the first gate out there we began to hear Cassin’s Sparrows. Nowhere in this north end of Cascabel do their songs carry out to the road edge and so I couldn’t be sure if there were any of the birds in these reaches until being seated on that “princely thrown” that is a horse saddle. Last year we came on a couple of the birds singing on the Cascabel Pasture when Pat and I rode one day but this time around–there was one after the other giving forth love calls, every few hundred yards along the whole of our big circle of some miles. How far across these mesas and bajadas and grassy flats and knolls of Cochise County were Cassin’s also singing?

At least a partial answer to that would come when the day before yesterday five of us (Tom, Nancy, Pat, Sue and I) set out with a steer for Willcox, early as we could to manage the likely wrecked 3-Links Road over the pass and hope the growly Monsoon would hold off long enough for us to get home without a storm cell forming overhead and getting us. It was not quite the same kind of light-hearted setting out of the horseback ride three days before that: there’d been an inch of rain the night before and so there was the promise of adventure in the air on the unpaved road that is washboard, boggy, deep-sandy and deep-muddy in startlingly quick turns. Yet light out we did, open to what the day would bring but knowing there was no guarantee the big truck and a livestock trailer with large steer on board was going to get itself to where pavement resumed on that road on the far side down in the Sulphur Springs Valley, and then get back to the relative safety of the home ranch before sunset. It simply had to be done, and we kept our mind on the gorgeous green landscapes and the spectacle of that Monsoon sky–and on the Tuesday Specials of Big Tex Barbecue in Willcox and the pistachio ice cream next door. After I nosed the Silverado onto the 3-Links Road, though, my mind turned to Cassin’s Sparrows, for no sooner had we straightened our rig and got steam up the first slope did the songs start reaching through the windows. Never mind that those vast cattle ranges are locally notorious for being overgrazed and cow-hammered, they were thoroughly occupied by these Cassin’s, whose voices continued one after the other, ever did there seem to be one coming to us on the dense, wet air. Though–I’m not sure about that unsettling stretch of wildly slidey, deep mud where we lost the bottom of the road and my thoughts got off sparrows and focused on an earthquake-long minute of wrenching the steering wheel hard right and hard left and hard right, trying to keep us from immanent perdición; no way could it be allowed to have that whole rig end up skating to the side or jackknifing into the ditch, and that steer kept from getting to the Harris family’s “Willcox Meat Packing House and Wild Game”. Or worse!–getting to the ice cream shop after it closed. There was sudden, comfortable silence for a few moments in the cab when it looked like we were going to make it on from the end of slithering up that grade, then before long my mind softened back into listening for more Cassin’s Sparrows and sure enough, they kept coming almost without pause on one side or the other for many a mile, as we came down off the saddles and passes and to the edge of Willcox town itself.

Maybe it took me a long while to become aware of and learn that song of the Cassin’s and that in reality they’ve been around here in numbers and I didn’t know it, but there seems to have been an explosion of the species in the last few years–though its range maps show it to be more a Chihuahuan than a Sonoran Desert bird. Some writers and authorities are still in 2017 referring to it as a “Species of Concern” but what I’m observing here is apparently holding true enough in other parts of its breeding territory that some time in the last year other authorities have quietly dropped the Cassin’s Sparrow off that list. This gives our work at Mason Pastures less snap, I can’t deny, since it was pretty exciting that species of this kind of interest were finding a home in our irrigated pastures. But I’ll gladly trade that importance I thought we were gaining, for those songs we now hear all around us when we’re horse mounted and when we drive. “And we shall have music wherever we go” will be true for however long these numbers stay up. Fluctuating the Cassin’s Sparrow population historically has been, not unlike that of other Aimophila sparrows like our Rufous-winged and Botteri’s (the latter have also yet to come back to Mason’s), but the scientific and conservation world seems lately to be less panicked by those ups and downs of such species. The mildness of the year, the heat, the rains that have come to us have also made a world very safe for the Cassin’s. As it changes, the climate is bringing so many “Mexican” species more frequently north over that fiction known as The Border that sightings of Slate-throated Redstarts, Rufous-capped Warblers, Flame-colored Tanagers, Tufted Flycatchers, and insects lovely or nasty too from the more tropical south don’t raise eyebrows as high as they once did. Vampire Bats are reported from less than 200 miles south of us–and we thought those now eradicated screw worms were bad for cattle. (Talk about Nature “batting” last!) I’m watching out for things rather less disturbing, like the large and magnificently-branched etcho, that cactus icon of those forests surrounding Alamos in Sonora where 30 inches of rain fall in their three months of Monsoon. Can’t wait to see those etchos shooting their arms up through the pink or yellow mist of amapa trees in bloom! At the rate it’s all changing, will that be next year?

[here’s a visual and voice recording of the species, one in North Carolina–an accidental there. It sounds like all those we’re hearing here, in arrangement and length of song …]

July 10, 2017

Rain, and our world on the banks of this dry desert river (how can a river be dry?) is thrown into life and chatter and buzz, with moving, bristling, tickling bug legs. Within hours of the first real soaking of this Monsoon they’re out and looking for something–nectar, leaves to chew, human ear lobes and eye lids, mates. On the ground of my garden-in-progress comes trotting in frantic determination not just a beetle, but a Palo Verde Beetle, a monster, hooked, barbed, with long jaws famous for latching onto the fingers of people who actually have the nerve to pick one up. It seems though, that this fearsome-looking creature has got a worse rap than maybe it deserves, since it supposedly can be handled as safely as the much more endearing Tarantula. I’m not about to get to know either one of those two neighbors that intimately but here now is that giant Longhorn Beetle crawling past right at my feet and I can’t help but follow him around. He is searching in a last-call-when-everyone-looks-beautiful-closing-time agitation, and comes to a little round hole in this garden bed terrace above a side wash of the San Pedro … stops dead for a moment then runs around and around outside the lip of the hole, and around and around, and closes ever more in on the edge in a narrowing gyre. Then he throws it into reverse and backs the tip of his long abdomen into the hole and starts spinning, front legs pulling sideways to move his body in one direction around, picks up speed while pushing his be-hind in the more deeply, then, rises a little. This allows me to make out another buggish abdomen is thrusting ever upwards from down in that dim cave, and that he’s coupling into a she-beetle. He swirls around head outwards still, picking up speed as he’s pulled inside a little more through every rotation til just his head and his front legs and his pair of outrageously long antennae are all that’s left sticking out, then just those antennae, and he almost vanishes in this whirlpool of ecstasy I swear he looks at me and sings,

Here I go fallin’ down down down,
my mind is a blank,
my head is spinnin’ around and around as I go deep into The Funnel
of Love

One last glance, and he is gone, out of sight, whirled into the earth where he like a Coleopteric Blake experiences the world in a grain of sand, eternity in his hour of beetle existence.

What a way to go.

ya just can’t run
from the Funnel of Love
it’s bound to get you someday!

October 29, 2016

A Merlin comes along like a winged bullet, only a foot off the ground it shoots across The Lane in front of the truck. The sneakiest of predators! no one is safe. I don’t know if this individual is the same that has come to be with me over the last few Winters, for it takes no alarm at my presence or my workaday moves through the pastures–it has sometimes come bombing up from behind me as I walk through the grass and check to see whether the ground is dry enough after irrigation to take cow foot traffic safely. This wild and formidable bird of prey may pass so closely that it seems I could raise my arm and it would alight on my wrist as if I were a Mongolian falconer.

In the long mesquite-bosque’d alley that runs between #2 and #3 pastures to The River, I search for Mycha’s day and a half old black calf she’d probably left there for the Universe to care for (or, eat!) while she went to loll about The Pond far away. I find a small black grasshopper with an iridescent sheen, a kind I don’t remember seeing before, impaled on a barb of the top wire of the dividing fence. It’s always interesting to have a look at a shrike’s larder, but as I get very close to the victim it moves a leg, and then both antennae one at a time slowly back and forth. I wonder how many people have seen a shrike putting away food for a later day. I must have missed the event by only minutes. Like a Roman citizen must have, I shrink away from this Spartacus and feel equally behooved not to interfere. The bird had sung its own version of the ballad of outlaw Claude Dallas, “… and a shrike’s got a right to hang some meat when he’s livin’ this far from town.”

I go the rounds of checking sprinkler nozzles for blockages or being jammed in place and not turning in circles, and a big kettle of vultures rises and rotates up from the Valley floor: they must be gathering. Every year I think we should throw them a going away party!

Through the binoculars I use to watch the wheel line irrigator in #2, I catch sight of a good-sized butterfly crossing the pasture. It looks like a Monarch … or is it just that I want it to be a Monarch? It flaps and flaps and works, rises and rises at a 45 degree angle until it is very high (for a butterfly anyway) and then glides … and glides … and soars like a Children’s Day kite. Back and around and dipping, with hardly a pump of a wing now, it’s not on its way to anywhere, not hard put to look for food–it’s just enjoying the sublime pleasure that comes of its abilities. The Universe has a sense of humor and fun, so why shouldn’t a Monarch? Why shouldn’t we?

October 16, 2016

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 …

August 31, 2016

People on the desert long enough
on a certain day about this time
in August feel
and taste
and see
a shift in the afternoon light and
shadows and breeze, and the
oppression of heavy air
lifts off and away
from each

and they let out a sigh
and breathe back in
a new Season
under another
desert Sun

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,
September,
when it comes …

I watch the clouds go sailing
I watch the clock and Sun,
oh I watch myself
depending on
September,
when it comes

–Rosanne Cash and John Levanthal, “September When It Comes”

August 26, 2016

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.