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.
Five Phyrrhuloxia at The Stockpond’s edge, a Shrike on a T-post, Redwings aloft against sun with wings white as light passes through them, their bodies black in silhouette.
Though late in the afternoon the air is 71 degrees, Winter cannot be denied: the Conyza has finally given up trying to get through to Spring, and the mesquites are at last bare in the sunset light of the mirror of the pond.
We were sittin’ round the ranch house some twenty
hands or more
most of us Americans but a few from Arkansas
one Dutchman from the fatherland one Johnny Bull
a Cornishman from Cornwall all men of different creeds
they were a sittin’ an’ a arguin’ busy as a hill of ants
how they’d get rid of the money they had buried in their
that they’d made by hard cow punching work all
the year around
from sunup until sundown an’ a sleepin’ on the ground
where at night the polecat saunters round the chuckbox
and in passing by your hot roll gives your head a friend-
where the rattlesnake lies dormant his fangs are like
’twas with them that I attended The Cowboy’s New
–Mark Chisholm, pre 1908, “The Cowboys New Years Dance”
Big Mahogany Ants are in wild and mad, kettle-a-boiling wakefulness at their wide hole–something about which I’m not thinking I needed to have a care (it is Winter, right?) when I open the truck door and drop a foot onto the ground in The Lane where I seek out the first bird of an informal First Day of 2014 bird count, a Brewer’s Sparrow. The ants, which aren’t amused by my presence, are sending out gatherers on this warm, sunny, blue spectacle of a New Year’s morning. I will keep chores to a minimum today, only check over the herd and water these pastures for neither kine nor grass have a horse in my race of trying to relax as best the day allow or quietly reflect on this year beginning and last year seamlessly gone. Saltweed splashes its tiny green and purple seedlings under a fence.
Mesquite rows full of singing Lark Sparrows …
Chipping Sparrows …
Say’s and Black phoebes …
Sparrows uncountable, flying up in masses, I turn the truck around to have the sun positioned so they’ll show better–most are Vespers and Larks, but I may suppose Savannahs and Lincolns and Songs are among them …
Western Meadowlarks …
White-crowned Sparrows, abundant in thicker edges …
Female Ladder-backed Woodpecker …
Sixty or so Red-winged Blackbirds in those splendidly understated winter clothes of theirs, crowning a lone wide-spreading mesquite …
Red-tailed Hawk …
Flicker, red-shafted …
Mourning Dove …
Brightest of red House Finches, knocked off his perch by a male Phainopepla with drama and flourish; I have for a very long time seen precious few of these Silky Flycatchers and their almost impossible elegance …
Gray Flycatcher …
Chihuahuan Raven …
Until a breeze springs up from the North when Sun brushes down on the ridge of the grand Rincon I am comfortable without a jacket through a day that itself brushes 70 degrees. Bugs are aloft, gleam in the last rays and many meet their end as a Gray Flycatcher stokes its belly with them to make the freezing night pass the more bearably.
More Red-winged Blackbirds are joining the herd and me at Mason’s–and they’re very welcome–and more Milk Thistles are germinating–and they’re very unwelcome! Tansy Mustard seedlings are also appearing.
One disaster after another, and I find myself out late, with the day almost gone to its rest. The Galiuros look alone in the gray sky with the way they’re set in the dark shadowed broad landscape–those peaks and sheer faces below them are white, glowing, and across those miles they cast light towards me in beams like a full Moon. They’re colored in gentle brush strokes of sage green, and bay. In a moment all are dusky violet-blue and shady pink, as if a switch were thrown and in the next moment the sky is lit afire overhead, and the land, hills, pastures old and sprouting are for a moment or two all a rose incandescence.
Lots of ducks whistling in, and fast–Mexican Mallards and Northern Mallards and everything on the “hybrid” continuum between the two. A few small Bronze Dragonflies are about, and the giant Great Blue Heron who might want to snatch them out of the air.
Over the pastures: a Kestrel, yellow-green grasshoppers, a single pale yellow small butterfly, a single war-torn Pipevine Swallowtail, and Polka Dot Beetles seemingly well adapted to nights below freezing. Large flocks of Winter plumaged Red-winged Blackbirds that hide in the silver-and-gold bermudagrass take off and do aerial moves wondrous to see, “pit-tickkk! pit-tickk!” they chatter. They may not be as colorful as they are in Summer, but they’re just as elegant in their seasonally appropriate tweeds that set off so beautifully their black, much fanned. They move around constantly, all fly out of sight, all fly back–but they’re less frantic to go to another pasture if the cows are with them. The flocks come along horizontally, in a flat, broad bunches, then every bird drops suddenly like a stone and vanishes in the tall grass.
Sky is music itself–“Chick chack chick! Chick chack chick! Chick chack chick!”, down from the passing Brewer’s Blackbirds … “Sweet sweet sweet sweet”, from the Pipits … “Chick chack chick!” … “Sweet sweet!”
The largest Tarantula Hawk ever comes thirsty to The Stockpond, where there are lots of dragonflies, damselflies and Snout Butterflies today. A relaxed covey of Gambel’s Quail drink, too, and then from the bank behind them most unwelcomingly comes popping up a Cooper’s Hawk, bringing chaos to replace the innocent peace and I can almost hear the hawk let loose a rakish “Bleuh!” just before it snags one of the quail, as if in vampire cape of approaching Halloween.
An owl hoots, in the warm 75 degrees of last light. Poorwill is friendly, not at all put out by the truck in The Lane, bounces its head up and down then rises and with fine acrobatics catches a moth bright in the headlights. We whistle and chirp, one with the other for a while until I wish it a good night’s day, then make a last stop before utter dark at The Stockpond where swallow-like bats are right at its surface taking drinks and moving across like rocks being skipped. As they fly by in zig-zag fashion they seem to flash on and off; they’re very pale, and there are very many of them.
The pastures are hushed, cold. Ice stalagmites balance on the ground below the flush valves that had drained and dripped out in the night and I hope their passages and the many small pipe fixtures aren’t blocked with ice chunks when I get to turn on the water. Mexican General Grasshoppers are still to be found motionless and stupefied on mesquite tips while the cold shadow remains thrown across to The River by the ridge to the east. Russett Harrier would find that huge grasshopper more than a morsel–it would be more like lobster tail–if the bird spies it. Many Vesper Sparrows tseep their little notes from the tangles of dried and drying amaranth, saltweed and other forbs, and Brewer’s Blackbirds alight, the females softly and subtly beautiful.
Life perks up, becomes more enthusiastic with the day, which by mid-afternoon registers above 80 degrees. The year’s last Turkey Vulture has apparently found the year’s last rising thermal wind current, and sails overhead, south … there’ll be no more of this, with that favorite avian mascot of ours. It wants to find a soft corpse for a morning meal, not something that needs to thaw. Brindle will be relieved. Adios, amigo Zopilote–saludos a Mexico! Kestrel, though, wants fresh and moving prey. He’s out hunting, and he dive-bombs a Meadowlark I guess just for the devil of it, the Meadowlark lets out panicked whistles, and alights on the tip of an electric line post with consummate grace and complains about the indignity of it all.
A lone Cassin’s Kingbird chatters farewell, the coming night that will be in the mid-20s will be too much for its temperate tastes and so no more will grace these fencelines. Every butterfly will probably be hard won from now, too, what ones the Kingbirds haven’t eaten; a Red Admiral races by, is nervous in that way of theirs.
The wide rings of Three Awn (Aristida) grass that edge the ant circles in #3 Pasture have taken on the rich colors of Autumn: within, the low walls of stems and leaves are rusty and green, and without are the palest of brown-yellow. Gazing into the depths of these wonderful natural circular sculptures is like gazing into the depths of a crystal.
Full Moon, already pendant in opalescent sky, balances within a cup in the mountain skyline when I top out on the ridge, almost “home”. The wild walls of the Galiuro, the Muleshoe, Sierra Blanca, the Mae West Peaks–all of them the color of the merlot I’m looking forward to pouring …
Although about to lose this home, still I am comfortable for some nights more, holding a glass of wine the color of those mountains, windows to shut and make cozy the room, but out there? Out there it is different, out across those bajadas marching endlessly to each horizon, on arroyo floors and in washes, the cold air will be flowing in the Sonoran Desert nights down mercilessly over beacon-drawn migrants paying a price for the starry tales they hold on to, migrants praying for a home, praying for roses to grow in a patio their own …
The day temperature has plummeted to just above 80 degrees, what’s with that? The coolness does give more of a party feel (well, invigoration at least) to the mesquite removal chore that we must first do before the land is ready for the sowing of winter pasture. In digging up one mesquite root I unearth a good-sized, spectacularly ornate larva like that found in late August by Chris E. and James C. when they were doing this same work, only this creature is in deep repose–paralyzed–and I suppose will transform itself into an adult wasp of whatever species had apparently parasitized it, instead of metamorphosing into the beautiful gray and pink silk moth, Sphingicampa hubbardi, the “Mesquite Moth” (a fitting a name!)
Surely it is the zenith of Western Kingbird passage now, they are on every fenceline, most every utility pole, mix it up with the last of the Bullock’s Orioles and with Summer Tanagers and Bell’s Vireos. And … was that a Dusky Flycatcher? More madness and masochism is added to that pastime of trying to sort out autumnal Empidonax, in a place and season where almost any of the ten species recorded in the West could turn up. Birds like this possible Dusky have enough about them to make me believe I am seeing something different, but it’s all mostly too subtle … Audubon Society writes things like, “Status uncertain,” and, “‘Western’-type flycatchers cannot be differentiated in the field” (referring to the recent split of Western Flycatcher into Pacific-slope and Cordilleran Flycatcher) and other works tell that some Empidonax that could be seen at The Stockpond in September are best distinguished by voice, but except for the Gray Flycatcher they seem to be silent in the Fall!
The first Violet-green Swallow back down from the mountains swings alone over the pastures, and a Hepatic Tanager flies ahead of me down The Lane–a bird also coming down from the forests and thence to Mesoamerica and beyond. Not one but two pairs of Red-tailed Hawks dance a wind-tango high overhead, the couples coming near each other, then in seconds glide across the sky stage far from the other pair, glide back, swirl up, sideways, like twin dust devils over the hot playas.
The cattle herd, newly placed on a pasture where they had kicked up their heels and danced delightedly over the grass, as they graze along now with more leisure stir masses of insects to which three most colorful male Brewer’s Blackbirds fly delightedly, and go to snapping at. Then come many Violet-green Swallows, soaring, swirling, swooping so near to me I can see every white circle of the plumage just above their tails. They drop and drop lower, and continue to swirl, only now right through the cows, around the cows, just over the cows’ heads, or skim the seeding heads of the bermudagrass as they pursue those stirred-up bugs. Poor bugs, they must be the only creatures not experiencing delight just now.
A full flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds passes over, which gives a sudden boost to the numbers of individuals and pairs that have been straggling into the area for the last month or that even stayed locally right through Summer.
Another Great Purple Hairstreak, one to raise the envy of a collector, its wings are set with blue opals and nacre irridescent, laid into the richest of all blues I may have seen in nature anywhere across lands of palm or pine.
On the edge of #3 Pasture I find a returned Marsh Wren that lets me approach within a couple paces, close enough that I can see the white stripes on its back. I also find the place in the fence on the road (well, one of the places in that fence) where Mycha the Cow took advantage of how the whole line is being buried in the mud and rubble of sheet flood after sheet flood. The top wire is now so low that Mycha just springs over with ease and nonchalant grace, to vacuum up the mesquite beans that those other, mere mortal cows who don’t have the nerve to follow (gracias a Dios!) can only dream about getting to. I haze her up the long road stretch to The Green Gate, she traipses back in, I pull up to The Stockpond and lose Mycha’s grand, teeth-grinding irritation in a water’s edge once again so alive with birds that I don’t know what to look at; I’m still so worked up and shaking over the chase with that cow that I can’t hold the binoculars still for a while anyway. Once I calm down, the birds all set themselves before me beautifully: pairs of Wilson’s Warblers, pairs of Black-headed Grosbeaks, sets of Lazuli Buntings, kingbirds, a bright female Bullock’s Oriole, Bell’s Vireos, an Orange-crowned Warbler, Abert’s Towhees, Blue Grosbeaks, a Nashville Warbler, immature Western Tanager, a Black Phoebe, McGillivray’s Warbler, a Swallow bombs in and bombs out too fast to see what species. A pair of Lucy’s Warblers are the last I’ll see in what seems with them a true farewell-to-Summer (I thought they’d all gone by now, it’s been so long since I’ve seen or heard any.) The flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds passes overhead.
The cows have been set to graze down the bermudagrass in #2(north) Pasture, to make easier its preparation for the planting of winter small cereals, as wheat, oats, barley and rye plants are called when used for grazing. Another Marsh Wren is there, and from the uncultivated other side of the River fence slides along another snake, who crosses bare patches of ground and pops down into a hole in the tufts of bermuda. This Ring-necked Snake is more mellow than yesterday’s Rattler (though it, too, is said to be venomous) and a handsome reptile it is: lead gray, with an orange band around its neck worn like a fine piece of jewelry.
The Monsoon, the Summer, end with a bang literally, as thunderstorm cells sweep in and over the Mason Pastures …