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.
The chubascos come and they come, stirring the largest and most massive eruptions of flying ants I’ve ever seen hatch on the Desert. They simply fill the air, and getting through them on the roads in the truck is like driving through dark snow squalls, with black ice pellets rattling on the windshield. The sound makes my skin crawl. I race along to the Community Center under a sky that means business, walk quickly as can be managed up the rocky slope above and have some unreasonable hope that we’ve got somewhere with eliminating Buffelgrass up there and I won’t have to be delayed into being bait for the lightning that is already a-flash. And–there is no Buffelgrass! not a plant, not a seedling. Native grasses in new and surprising variety blanket everywhere, including the spaces we’d made by having pulled out Buffel over the last couple of years. A Cassin’s Sparrow sings out across the gulf of that wide arroyo as I rush into the truck! (The bird is all over the place this year, every spot but Mason’s that is, where I most expected them to return.) I have to get up the wash bottom near El Potrero to see about that formerly serious Buffelgrass colony I call Yvonne’s Buffelgrass Gulch, once full of the dangerous plants that had stair-stepped up from the sandy bottom flat right up to the mesa crest. Do I have a brain? Why do I end up doing this thing so often when there is the threat of getting turned into burnt toast by lightning? It’s not like life in these wilds isn’t thrilling enough that we need to search out even more excitement.
The lightning is coming in pairs by the time the search for clumps and seedlings of that Buffelgrass is wrapped up and the slope gives me to know the plants, here too, are gone!
Pat and I ride our horses across the higher range, forlorn of the company of cows now gone so that the native grasses can grow their flowers and seeds to sow again the hillsides and bajadas. We search out Summer flowers but the land is mostly forlorn of their company, too, the rains have been so scant. There is almost no crop of Saguaro fruit again this year, alas! and we’ll miss gobbling them down. The first blossoms of Barrel Cactus are coming on though (nothing stops them); with their varied colors, and the animated shapes of the plants’ bodies, they make for good reason to saddle and go out on a 105 degree day–as this one will be. As we climb one slope and mesa after another we come on one Cassin’s Sparrow and another singing, each having staked out a territory in this Summer of grass that has responded to and made lush by that one big rain at the beginning of the month. The thunderheads a few days ago started building at last, and the rain in the gauges slowly to rise. How we celebrate this afternoon, when three-quarters of an inch fills them!
A little more rain, the first in almost three weeks and not enough to stop fretting about the state of the Native Grass Planting with its desiccation and shriveling continuing apace. Water it and encourage too-rampant growth of competing Palmer’s Amaranth, Copper Mallow, and Bermudagrass, or hold off and risk the loss of the precious clumps of gramas, bristlegrasses, sprangletops, beardgrasses, dropseeds and three-awns? All is wet enough, though, and I hope to hear Cassin’s Sparrows again in #3 Pasture but no, only many Rufous-winged Sparrows trilling, or doing their convincing Eastern Towhee impersonations. It must not be enough for the Cassins’ to ask their partners after their singing dive and mating display, “Did you feel the earth move under your feet?” but that they have to hear a certain number of real thunder rumbles … as some human desert rats tell the mud-buried Sonoran Desert Toads must? Maybe not enough rumbles have come on us yet? Or are they troubled by the population boom of Rufous-winged Sparrows still in their dense population cycle here?
The handsome, shrubby Composite in The Lane near the tall water storage tank is as alive with a species of native bee as that Graythorn has been with Tarantula Hawks. These bees are ones I’ve never seen before. Short and stocky, golden in the fore-half, black behind, with slanted greenish eyes: they look like the Roswell Alien and they fly like little spaceships themselves, very fast, in a frenetic zig-zag pattern. They’re as handsome as the sprawling plant and its showy yellow rayless flowers, where they’re joined in the nectar feast by only a few butterflies, and a Tarantula Hawk or two. I think the plant is False Boneset, Brickellia eupatorioides but oh, those Composites, what critters to key out and identify they be–even more fun than grasses. Whatever this is, it might be the longest-flowering and most attractive “pollinator plant” wild on the range and should be propagated and disseminated widely.
Not one rattlesnake to be seen this Summer at Mason’s–the Roadrunners are many and large and often accompany me in groups of three or more as I scare up bugs and lizards in my own frenetic zig-zagging and flying saucer zooming across the pastures to get the endless rounds of chores done …
The Cassin’s aren’t singing. They are gone from Mason’s, looking for greener Pastures elsewhere I guess.
The Cassin’s are singing, a third day …
When Monsoon after her opening fiesta lifts the hem of her skirt of clouds enough above her ankles to wade in the arroyos she’s left running, all this land lies drenched and steaming.
Over a half inch of rain begins High Summer and the temperature soars from the delight of a cool 80 degrees yesterday to well past 90 today. The smallest of effort to push myself into #3 Pasture to listen for Botteri’s Sparrows pulls sweat to wet and darken the work shirt. No, no Botteri’s–but yes, yes! for a second day comes the rich, descending, see-sawing whistles of Cassin’s. They may have been here already but they do not let go their songs until rain actually falls for if it doesn’t, why waste the swagger and the aerial dance of courtship? Will they stay even if the much rarer Botteri’s has abandoned us and apparently withdrawn to their more usual range closer to The Border? The presence of the Cassin’s Sparrows is exciting and deeply satisfying enough to us and the Forest Service and the pastures, now after so much work of the past few years has turned the wide almost sterile Burroweed flats into the kind of mosaic of those shrubs and the native grasses that this “Species of Concern” might want to call home.
Those overgrown “ducklings” of the Mexican Mallard pair head for the shore whenever the Silverado appears at The Stockpond, move up through the weeds away from me crouched almost flat to the ground, quickly and more like lizards than large birds that can fly off if they want to. Black Phoebes have appeared again in good numbers through the pastures but especially in the branches overhanging the open water, after having been absent most of the Foresummer and early Summer. Where do they come back from?
4 a.m. at the house on Fire Sky Ridge between Sierra Blanca Wash and Pool Wash, the martins are as high as the moon nestled among a few meek clouds overhead. In the light the moon pours down the birds pour down calls and notes. I stand on the patio, coffee cup in hand, under the ramada. Over it and all the dark lands arches a firmament of the martins’ starry whistles. This phenomenon which I’m not sure anyone else is much aware of comes to an end as it always does about fifteen minutes before the dawn light comes. Lesser Nighthawk quaverings and weird chuckles come suddenly and night-jarringly out of the dark from out over the Saguaro slopes that drop into those washes.
Their loud, “check!” calls draw my attention to the five Yellow-headed Blackbirds that again today have arranged themselves artfully on the wheels of the irrigation lines. In another pasture Abert’s Towhees chase each other up and down the wheel line axle pipes. It is time to keep an ear out for Botteri’s and Cassin’s sparrows, and this morning I see a far sparrow singing like a Chipping, but with a wren-like ending to the song. I have a second to catch rufous on its crown before a bleepin’ Lark Sparrow chases it far off (later in listening to recordings of the Rufous-crowned Sparrow I’m encouraged to think that a Rufous-crowned it is …)
Kathleen and Ralph W. must see the evening spectacle of birds at The Stockpond before the days of it trickle down and away when Monsoon arrives, so tonight while I was getting the lines up to their watering for the night our naturalist friends arrive in their pickup and set themselves along the shore. It takes me longer than usual to make sure all is running efficiently out on the pastures, and I just miss the parade of martins coming through and sweeping the water, and I’m glad Ralph and Kathleen have been able to see it. What I do see when I get there is a lowered tailgate spread with delectables and fine food, a bowl of fresh large cherries, homemade cookies, a slab of brie cheese for heaven’s sake, crackers, all to be washed down with cabernet, all as if pulled from some never-exhausted magic bag from The Arabian Nights … and then comes in that vast swirl of Poorwills, bats, and nighthawks of two very different sizes–immatures and adults? Lesser Nighthawks and Common Nighthawks? I had been thinking the Nighthawks that come in and hover to drink for that suspended moment have the manner and grace of storm petrels, and similarly Ralph volunteered on his own that what they reminded him of is Kittiwakes. We talk about these things far into the night, well, “far” where we’re concerned in this life that puts us to bed earlier than town folk. Who’d let any of those rare goodies be left on the tailgate anyway? The conversation is as delectable as what is spread on the sideboard of the tailgate, and that’s not just because I mostly have cows to talk to all day.