Tag Archives: Flycatchers

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 13, 2016

It is still Summer: a Rufous-winged Sparrow perches for a moment on a fencepost near me, and it’s carrying nesting material in its beak, flies off into the Saguaro Canyon across the road. I wonder again if this sparrow’s long breeding period from early Spring to the late Monsoon, and the fact that it is in one of its high-population phases now for a couple years, doesn’t have an effect on the other rarer sparrows’ Summer presence here. Do the Cassin’s keep checking back and find that the Rufous-winged have yet to check out, so they keep looking further?

A dragonfly different from all I’ve ever seen, comes to The Stockpond for one day: the “Widow Skimmer”, with wings banded in black and very pale azure at the tips so bright those spots appeared to be white; the body is dark. It would be a dragonfly collector’s treasure …

More Gray Flycatchers (but looking rather more green than gray), I hear their friendly and familiar, frequently called out “chee-bik! chee-bik!” in most every kind of cover, or fenceline.

August 11, 2016

A Western Wood Peewee now, down from the higher, moister canyons and mountain parks a full month earlier than the arrival of that species a year ago. An autumnal August indeed but the wobbles back and forth around the 100 degrees mark. The bugs are awful. Send more Peewees, please!

July 5, 2016

The scolding and hissing of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers comes from the scrubby mesquites and the Graythorns, the bird rather uncommon from my observations on this side of las Rincones Altas.. There are lots of little notes and clicks from other small birds, a pack of Bushtits are fluffing around (they look like dustballs with bills) and many immature Black-throated Sparrows are opening green mesquite pods for the still-tender seeds. They leave the chaff on the ground like peanut hulls on a honky-tonk dance floor.

I look down into the opening at the top of that iron gate post in which the Ash-throated Flycatchers have set up home, to see if that big baby had fledged yet from its solar oven nursery. I’d certainly want to get out of there! What?? … the bird is indeed gone, but I realize what I had been looking at a week ago wasn’t a baby, but the mother–I’d forgotten about Myiarchus moustaches! This time I had a better entry of light into the shaft to see, and thought it was sweet that she hadn’t shot upwards then with bill aimed into the eye of the cyclopean monster. Curiosity could have at least blinded this cat prying into their affairs but the pair of flycatchers have got completely accustomed to our coming and going and working right there, and seem undisturbed by our being near, even this near. What I did see this time charmed to no end: three beautiful small speckled eggs, perhaps just the beginning of a clutch.

Immature Hooded Orioles enliven the mesquites and the tall grass and forbs in the north of #2 Pasture, and among them is a large “baby” cowbird (cue the villain music?) begging and seeming to be communicating with an answering adult oriole but, I don’t witness enough to be sure it was that bird who raised it.

June 27, 2016

Hooded Oriole pairs are showy and colorful out in the tall grass and weeds, far from the bosque edge, and over those pastures are winging many Rough-winged Swallows, mostly juveniles from large families. Monday’s swallow is fair of face … the Rough-wings have also lately taken to perching on the branches of the mesquites overhanging The Pond, giving a rare opportunity to study them leisurely, and do they ever chatter there while they sit! Masses of dragonflies are low over the same pasture, echoing the sight and behavior of the swallows above them.

I peer down through the top of the iron gate post where the Ash-throated Flycatcher has her nest, and as my eyes focus through the dimness I can make out not a mother but a big baby bird alone in there, still fuzzy but well along, its eyes piercing the dark and looking straight up, deeply and resentfully (or is it hopefully?) into mine. I must look to it like Cyclops, with my one eye gazing down from the opening in the roof. Actually I am as startled as this juvenile bird is, especially when it suddenly lets out with the most remarkable sounds, sharp loud clicks like the shorting out of some powerful electronic unit that carry a long way, all the while with its brilliantly colored maw held open wide … How does it make such a noise? The disembodiment of those clicks is so unsettling I draw back involuntarily and determine not to investigate that nest cavity again. I’d heard this a couple days ago from some paces away from that post, though couldn’t imagine what it was that was putting out the sound effect–had some live wire come undone and was sparking-out on the metal posts? The noise may be what greets anything the fledgling thinks is going to be bringing it something, rather than a panic or warning.

Fledglings rule the fencelines, the wheel lines, the mesquite hedgerows, the bosque edge, the thickets, the stalks of maturing oats–and their parents. Vermillion Flycatcher siblings … Lark Sparrow babies everywhere … Bell’s Vireo young’uns with fluttering wings hopping along from one parent to another, begging, all these gray birds and the birdlings poking around and fidgeting madly through a bramble of Graythorn and mesquite just outside the truck; they fill the open window as if it were a broad television screen. And on The Pond, a lively set of eight Mexican Mallard ducklings where none had been seen the day before. They’re not ducklings exactly any more, already half grown the way they are this year upon their appearance though they still can’t fly. The now quite tame Mallard parents will probably acculturate these offspring to our human ways, as they did their last year’s brood. Where could these have hatched? The river has been dry for a while, without the deep grass on its banks where ducklings could hide the way there was a year ago. In 2015 the family arrived out of the riverbed, the very young ducks walking behind their parents much earlier than this, too–that surprise of a dozen ducklings that added so much life to The Pond came then the first week of May, and by the end of the first week of June they’d left, parents and all. Many came back later, at least who survived the King Snakes and the coyotes, fully grown and fully winged: we could always tell which they were among other ducks by how relaxed they’d stay when we’d drive up or I’d scoot around the water’s edge to record and empty the rain gauge.

When will the rain gauge need emptying again? In this most Fearsome Foresummer we’ve almost become numb to, our unconscious is turning over the possibility that it won’t ever again have water in it …

June 20, 2016

Oh Dolly, Dolly–how can you sing out from the radio, “Together you and I can stop the rain/and make the sun shine!” I hope she and Porter don’t come here, at least not now, the temperature yesterday having gone past the brink of 114 degrees and today, 109. Or is Dolly’s big hair of such continental massiveness that it can make its own weather, and would bring us rain no matter the words of her song? On second thought, maybe I should see if they’ll play it again.

The Ash-throated Flycatcher pair are on the double road gate at the north end of Mason’s, the male performing a whisper of a mating with his partner. She then pops through the large hole in the side of the heavy iron gate post a few feet above the ground and settles onto her nest within. This is the second year Alex and I have seen these birds occupy the place, which must cook with a Bessemer furnace-like heat! My clanging around her and cowboy drop-gate rebuilding there–the gate pivoting on the very post–has no effect on the bird’s behavior and she ignores me as she’s apparently smart enough to conclude that I am no threat, the same as she did last year. This casts doubt on the growing effort to see that all such pipes used in ranch fencing be covered, their blocked up to keep birds from getting trapped inside.

An adult Say’s Phoebe puts in a rare summer appearance, hawking out after bugs from the top of #3 Pasture’s wheel line. After a number of summers’ observation of them, I can only come to think that they leave the area to seek out the human-made structures now much preferred for nesting sites, the nearest of those being a distance away on ridges to the north.

May 2, 2016

Among chores and the cow-critters of Mason Pastures, there are lately passing through birds that even for here, are remarkable. Thought I’d share some “jottings” (more like scribbles) from the pocket notebook of the recent weeks …

Two Gray Hawks
Tristan, Isolde,
in love song duet
out of the lush wood it drifts
through budge budge of swallows
and to my ears–
and grumble of thunder that thrills
and welcomes me home
to Summer.

A male Wood Duck on The Stockpond, for one day.

Kingfisher thought he might get hold of tender squablets of Vermillion Flycatchers in their nest out on the branch over the water of The Stockpond, and so spent some minutes giving the alarmed and harried parent birds their annual Spring heart attack …

A great swirl of Rough-winged Swallows curves and descends to the pond in midday heat, to opera playing on public radio while I eat lunch.

I don’t open the middle wheel line irrigator hydrant until I’m sure that the first line has come up to full pressure after its last flush valve closes and stops hemorrhaging water. I put the binoculars there, on its east end, but my sight instead landed right on a low-flying creature I thought by its flight was a bat still out and now caught by the first sun rays, but–it was a very leisurely and solitary Vaux’s Swift! I could have watched and watched, the way I could have that Wood Duck, so rare is such an opportunity of seeing that swift at all, much less in a situation with the light perfect, against good background (vegetation and not glaring sky behind it), its closeness, and how it hung around so temptingly, but,     with that valve having closed, I had to tend to another riser and hydrant that must be opened.

A warbler morning at The Pond … Wilson’s, Yellow-rumped, Orange-crowned, more Wilson’s, a dapper-dan Black-throated Gray (good, understated taste in suits, that bird–I don’t think I’d recorded any before at the place …)

Another great swirl of birds who spend much of their lives on the air–a flock of White-throated Swifts. I’d never be able to count them, they screech and zoom right past my head and seemingly right through me, to drink for the smallest of moments from The Stockpond where I stood.

A splendidly flaming Bullock’s Oriole above a treetop, out on a long wand of a mesquite branch.

A Mockingbird is immitating a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

and now a large flock of Violet-green Swallows; they spend the day over the pastures swinging low, swinging high, the next day are gone.

Kingbirds already in goodly numbers, and already on the fight.

I’ve got to get that riser closed down, the pump has turned itself off, and as I buzz across the pasture with the chore blinders on, I glance up to see a finch of an obvious strangeness that demands a lifting of the binoculars and, oh my … what has Alex’s devotion to turning that sprouting mesquite bosque back to grassland rewarded us with? A beautiful, and oh-so-rare Dickcissel. It’s not far away, I can see every detail that confirms the bird that looks so like a Meadowlark in miniature. Even if Botteri’s Sparrows don’t come again this summer, the appearance of the Dickcissel (apparently none have ever been recorded in the month of April in southern Arizona!) confirms the rightness of having taken on so awful, painful, and tiring a chore of keeping our little world safe for those sparrows by removing those mesquites. It seems as comfortable there as it is on its native, vast, waving grass of The Plains.

Through all the glory and rarity of these birds of our April, the flycatcher still stands out, and it can take your breath …

Vermillion Flycatcher,
bird aflame
never consumed,
from your ashes
no need to arise
for the one consumed
by your fire, is I.

August 2, 2015

The Monsoon. Bug time big time, when you never know what’s going to hatch next, what’s going to appear that none of us have seen before here, what’s going to appear that we wish we hadn’t seen, ‘specially at night on the floor. (And as the more tropical Desert moves slowly northwards out of Sonora, there are surprises in store that no Wall will stop, surprises beautiful or dreadful–or both!) I only spent a few nights this Kissing Bug season listening intently in the dark of our hot June for that drone-whir of a big one zooming low over the bed, checking out the blood buffet it wants, then that, um, blood-curdling little bang against the wall and ensuing total, sudden silence as it lands there to plot its next move. Only six bites this year, now I’m so sensitized to the nasty and distinctive sound The Thing makes that it can wake me from sleep and have me scrambling for the vacuum cleaner to put the suck on it in a sweet turning of tables, or have a paper towel around it and with a quick squeeze, dispatch it. Aviso: DON’T whack these guys with a magazine or a shoe heel against a wall, especially a white wall, unless you need someone to divine the future from a large red Rorschach blot mess. I found them on the windowsill, on the woodwork, in the sink, in the tub–“Kissing Bug Bath & Beyond”. Nicer(?) was a visit one evening by a huge, I do mean, huge, Blonde Arizona Tarantula, revealed to me suddenly when I turned on the bedroom lamp to read and found it just over the pillows, suspended upside down and hanging on to the underside of a swag of curtain I’d pulled out of the way so whatever precious cool of the night air movement would pass through the room. With its beautiful long dark legs, it sure stood out against that white curtain material. They fall from the ceiling onto people’s beds from time to time. I wound the alarm clock, and put out the Tarantula. Maybe it went looking for Kissing Bugs in the night garden.

There is beauty in smaller packages. A few days ago on a sweat-drenched late afternoon just when I’d had it with pulling mesquites and mesquite-lings from what will be one of this year’s winter pastures for the cattle, I scared up an exquisite moth of about a two-inch wingspan, white of fore- and hindwings, with scattered black flecks and points, a short russet cape down its upper abdomen, that cape, too, dotted with black. It was fat, and seemed strained in take off–gravid, I suppose. Some minutes later a very similar white moth took wing from another mesquite I was disturbing, this one very active, wild and warier, with a fast, purposeful flight even under a hot afternoon sun in air of 99 degrees. Its hindwings, though, were the same russet of its own abdomen cape, leading me to think not only was a lovely moth of these parts newly revealed to me but of all the luck, both its dimorphic male and female forms were. At home later, a quick google-search brought the identity: the Salt Marsh Moth, or Acrea Moth–not a desert specialty, but a species found in many parts of the world and whose similar relatives are known as “Ermines.” What an appropriate folk name that would be for this Acrea Moth of ours, too, as can be seen in these pictures from the Internet site, “Butterflies and Moths of North America“:

(who could resist this moth-apparition of one of those sad-eyed DeGrazia children?)

This also solves a longtime mystery, of the identity of long haired, formidable-looking caterpillars that appear on the mesquites of Mason Pastures, whose spines and heavy fur we’ve had a great care not to touch for fear of being burned (though now I read that these caterpillars are harmless.) Apparently the gorgeous if frightening larvae can range in color and form so widely that one would automatically take them for several species. One of these is much like the Wooly Bear of Eastern states, and this I’ve now found goes by the lyrical, appropriate name, “Black and Tan” …

Earlier on that same day, Anna Lands reported to me something she saw happen at The Stockpond where she waited for me to join her for lunch: a female Vermillion Flycatcher shot out over the pond and grabbed a dragonfly mid-air after the insect had been depositing eggs over the water. I had no idea that little flycatcher would go after an insect as large as that. Those birds are fearless: this Spring I was entertained by a mated pair of them dive-bombing a huge Belted Kingfisher as it made circles around the pond, closer and closer in towards the flycatcher nest half way up a big mesquite on a branch over the water. The closer the big bird swooped, the more frantic and angry was the reaction of the pair of small Vermillions. It was a surprise later to find out that indeed those kingfishers will snatch a nestling if they can get away with it, I guess no less a dainty than would be a minnow. Kingfisher never got to find that out for itself, though, because the flycatchers won, at least this bout.

Early August, and the Red-winged Grasshoppers have appeared earlier I think than I have seen before–the first during the final week of July. The Monsoon is revving slowly, and at last has started to bring good, terrifying and dangerous chubascos that cause me to flee the pastures and hole-up at the Ridge House where I wonder how the place can stand the huff-and-I’ll-puff blasts of 50, 60, 70 mph winds. Then yesterday during a sunrise of incredible calm, there was not a breath to rearrange the spectacular flights of ants in air as saturated as a Hawaiian morning. After the night of a ferocious storm that dropped an inch and a half of rain, the ants swirled for miles and miles of gravel road, in Van Gogh glittering swirls of golden stars, to delight, and to creep out. It was the greatest bughatch I’d ever seen, like driving into snow, collecting in bronze and copper shining drifts across the road surface. I had to close the windows, Too many were landing on my hat brim and nose. I finally had to have at least air movement inside the cab of the pickup by the time I got to the pavement, on my way to check on our rather famous Molly the Cow and her new, impossibly beautiful calf Barbara Clark named, “Two Too.” In a few moments, though, the truck was flying through even greater masses of undulating, madly mating insects, which hit the windshield with the pit! crack! of driving into an ice storm, they hit my face with the sting of wind-wrenched pebbles as I sped along trying to get through them, got sucked roundly into a nostril, ack! snort! gasp! The truck slid on piles of them along the edge of the road, and I got out at Three Links to open the gate to get to Molly, with having had quite enough of “bugs”!

February 28, 2014

The night was warm enough to have slept without a blanket.  Ruby-crowned Kinglets are in the nearby giant of an Afghan Pine, giving out their oriole-like chatters and beautiful motets scaled down to miniature as befits the size of these friendly green sprites.

The oats and barley of Sam’s yet ungrazed winter pasture is already shooting out sprays of flowers, before February has ended.  This day will come to feel roasting in the 80 degrees of heat, which must signal to the cool season, “small grain” grass crops that they must produce seed before Winter skips right into Summer.  There’s been no rain, neither in this month nor last, none since Christmas, which demands of these grasses they bolt and drop seed before they’re turned into hay by drought and the bake of sun.

As I sit in the pickup and scan The Stockpond, the first fly of the year big enough to buzz annoyingly around my face and ears circles round and round inside the cab.  Venus the heifer sticks her head through the window, drops out a tongue that would alarm the rock band KISS, she thinks I’m her adoring head banger and wants to lick me as much as I’ll allow.  It’s hard to hold binoculars still enough to study a duck’s speculum while a cow’s tongue is wrapped around one’s wrist, and tugging.  Neither Cinnamon Teal is present today, but the pair of Mexican Mallards are, and the female Vermillion Flycatcher who is not wanting much to be in the treetop with the male in what he thinks should be a fetching scarlet hussar’s tunic.  “How can she resist me in this uniform??”  She’ll have none of it.  “I’m not that kind of a girl!”  Or, is she the coquette?  Black Swallowtail Butterflies and Sulphurs are underneath, dancing, having a mud party.

Storm clouds! … high, blue and cream-colored, with layer cake tops reflecting as a circle in the pond late in the day, the Mexican Mallards’ dabbling making ripples go out from this brightly lit center to the edges, the water pale blue though Sun is gone.  Silver sky in the North, with throw-pillows of white clouds darkly, ominously edged on their sides, their bottoms thick, even blacker.

Anticipation and a joy that it is hoped is not misguided rises in Cascabel.  Under the Mae West Peaks, it’s going to rain!