Category Archives: Nature Jottings

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.

August 24, 2016

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.