Tag Archives: Kingbirds

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 16, 2016

At El Potrero, I hear a call so unfamiliar to me that I don’t even have an idea what family of birds to think singer fits into. It’s loud, yet grasshopper like and chattering and then I see it–a kingbird and not just any kingbird, but a Tropical Kingbird. The thing displays and displays until I’m sure of what I’m looking at and then flies into a large mesquite shading my winter quarters there and promptly a Western Kingbird comes screaming through the air and dive-bombs the exotic visitor, chases it off, and there’s no time to pursue. Is it in post-breeding dispersal wanderlust, as it and many of its relatives take up? or has it been there all Summer, outside my awareness?

June 2, 2016

The ryegrass of the Winter Pasture (a quaint term! it’s 102 degrees …) is producing its countless flower spikes, and green grain too, and those pastures are alive with Lesser Goldfinches giving out their lemon twist chitterings, and bright House Finches feasting on the plants of the small grains.

A Chihuahuan Raven flies down The Lane, low and just in front of the windshield of the slowly moving Silverado: what a great view of prowess airborne! but the bird is up to no good at least from the point of view of other species now frantically planning for the families that will come in with the time of plenty that they and I hope is on its way. Pow, a Kingbird bonks Raven on its crown, the blow having no effect on the grace and intention of its flight, Raven without loss of the rowing of its wings can still forward navigate the air of The Lane with its head straight up in the air at right angle to its body, jabbing those big black mandibles at the Kingbird. Pow, a Mockingbird bonks Raven on its crown, Raven looks up in defiance again and glares menacingly at Mockingbird, while it still rows its wings and doesn’t in the least wobble … it stabs the weapon of its bill into the air but misses this second and also most agile bird who “ain’t nothin’ but business”. All three crash through the wall of mesquite leaves and out of sight while other birds throw themselves into a fray now invisible inside the tree … seconds later Raven shoots out of the large and very dense mesquite, a nestling dangling from its bill, the Mockingbird in lightning, angry pursuit, the two birds and the doomed baby disappear over a far pasture with it seems the whole bird neighborhood in uproar behind them.

A single Vesper Sparrow is still here! Bob helps me determine that there are no records of the bird in the first week of June in southern Arizona. “Global Weirding”, I suppose.

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.

October 17, 2013

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 …

[…]

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqgNagMVydU

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 …

[…]

October 11, 2013

Forty degrees, even on the ridgetop, the house had been closed up but the windows are opened before I leave, to let in while I’m gone the warmth of what promises to be a pleasant day. Click, click, click, down go the night temperatures further into the 30s at Mason’s, and there is ice on the irrigation hoses–at last. No Snipe, no birds drinking at The Stockpond, no song, no call notes, there is only utter silence. Later, though, more Cassin’s Kingbirds, Blue Damselflies and other dragonflies return.

October 10, 2013

I looked out on a downright wintry sunrise when the blinds were raised and the curtains drawn back for the first time since May: today I’ll want the house to collect as much warmth it can, and keep it.

The day is hard-put to get past 70 degrees, the Wilson’s Snipe staying with us will feel the more comfortably at home. The front brings another wave of birds south, the first Chipping Sparrows, and more Cassin’s Kingbirds from the Four Corners I guess, and the Mogollon. A day of wild skies and scudding but impotent, cold rain clouds, a flock of Violet-green Swallows and zipping in among them, a rare Vaux’s Swift to delight Bob E. and me. (I’d seen one other in my life, on a birding trip through the Pacific Northwest 40 years ago.) They are to be the last of that Swallow to snap up the bugs stirred by our Mason Pasture herd.

Lunch at The Stockpond, with a beautiful pair of Lazuli Buntings, an elegant Lord and Lady. A Flame Skimmer Dragonfly of the usual incredible, garish hue rests on a water plant in front of us the whole while we ate, but we don’t see any of the Blue Damselflies that were common only a couple of days ago.

October 9, 2013

The truck slips from the warm ridgecrest into the riverbottom, under some line of inversion and into temperatures in the upper 30s. I’m afraid there will be ice to be dumped from the irrigation hoses, not just because it would be another hard letting go of Summer, but because I don’t feel much like having to clear spraying water nozzles and getting a face full of wet even if the sun will just have arisen. Dark in the shadows of the eastern ridge, the pasture will take a while to feel warm; grasshoppers are there, asleep in the cold including the Mexican Generals in their habitual mesquite tips. I don’t know where the Red-winged Grasshoppers hide for such a night. A Swainson’s Hawk looks cold himself, hunched in a tree top where the sun will strike first. Last night will be the last he can stand, and he will head towards Sonora today and no more of his kind will grace our sky until Spring returns. Yet–the Devil’s Claw in that pasture still hangs out a blossom or two.

The afternoon, nevertheless, heads up almost to the 90 degree mark, the infamous wind of this season of the Southwest comes up and lasts all day, takes my light palm-leaf Summer cowboy hat in its abrazo and flings it far, time after time Wind plays fetch and I know she’s telling me I ought to change over to the heavier beaver Stetson. The first Western storm approaches but probably won’t bless us, the wind its harbinger. The storm swirls down from the North instead of up from the tropics nearer by us: for Flagstaff it will be snow, but mildness reigns here in our own Land Beneath the Rim, our own Tierra Caliente. It’s probably pushed along to us the lone Cassin’s Kingbird that I spy up in #4 Pasture. The hot afternoon brings out many Western Pygmy Blue Butterflies to the pond’s rim–haven’t seen one of those since Spring. Grasshoppers also love the day’s heat, tiny-sized pale blue ones fly abundantly ahead of my step through their pastures. A Great Blue Heron flies back and forth between The Stockpond and open water of The Cienega in #1 Pasture, where over the course of the summer native Willows have established themselves and grown upwards with surprising quickness. Snipe is less jumpy than the heron, and has grown so used to me that I’m able to walk past within ten feet, and it still sits there.

October 8, 2013

The newly established native grass planting is being weaned into dormancy, getting watered only twice a month and in decreasing amounts–it is a showcase of wintering sparrows (Lincoln’s, White-crowned, Vesper, Savannah, and a female Lark Bunting.) Seeding amaranths in there are shoulder high and dropping spiny fruits into my boot tops, irritating my feet but quite the buffet spread for the birds. Native gramas long before established by themselves in there, plus naturalized Stinkgrass and Lovegrass, add to the seed bounty.

Opening one of the growing number of silky chambers appearing in the outside branches of the small mesquites overgrowing the pastures, I find a large-bodied, pearly-gray furry spider, fascinating and also unsettling, with an abdomen fat as if it were storing up supplies for the winter.

A drive to that north dirt tank reveals it still has water in it, going on three weeks after the last rain. It has always been “productive” of little birds, but today a Sharp-shinned Hawk is present and the only sound is crickets. The electric wires and utility poles, t-posts and barbed wire strands, and mesquite crowns are also empty of Cassin’s Kingbirds, and I think ours must have left.

Amigo Snipe is at The Stockpond, and Snout Butterflies, and a plain, nut-brown dragonfly with a blue, soap bubble sheen to the wings. Across the water itself gracefully swims a bright orange, large Water Scorpion–or should it be called better, Water Stick?

A Verdin peeps in the mesquites of The Lane; they are almost absent from these lands I work every day.