Tag Archives: Purple martin

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”

January 8, 2014

Chipping Sparrows, lots of Chipping Sparrows, at The Stockpond, as bright of eye and wing and life as a flock of tropical finches. Gambel’s Quail drift in and out nervously for water, Abert’s Towhees though own it all, arrive, chase each other off, come back, squabble and squeal their notes, bomb back and forth at each other low-profiled and fast like brown-feathered torpedoes.

Javelinas, now with babies, mow and mow the winter pasture, but after all, they must be allowed their pound of greens. I and the cattle are growing impatient, though, for the time when the crop has outgrown this constant porcine pruning and the pastures can also be a bovine buffet.

Still I haven’t found a way to catch a Polka Dot Beetle to have a close look–they know well how to evade a predator, fly off faster if you just stare at them, seem to fold wings and drop to the ground if you make a move to scoop one in the air, then they scramble off quickly in the thatch or scurry along the underside of a leaf and vanish.

Pillbugs are active, I turn up numbers of them in the course of digging out mesquites large and small in front of, behind, and beyond the fence of The Stockpond in anticipation of the return of Purple Martins in a few months. Those charismatic birds need a wide, clear approach and runway as they come to drink, as do the various swallows of summer, swifts, and bats, and if the mesquites are left in place it will be not much time before their crowns have grown across into a wall that would be a menace to the flying creatures’ navigation and swing.

A Gray Flycatcher has been at the water’s edge all day, and is joined after sunset by one Mexican Mallard who comes in for the night.

September 28, 2013

Both windows closed in the bedroom, a sudden dip into the 30s before dawn has driven me not only under a sheet, but under a quilt, to drink coffee in bed instead of out in balmy, star-ceilinged air fast becoming just a pleasant memory.

Snowbirds today, driving or riding in pairs in ATVs, touring on the Cascabel Road and as they stir up the clouds of dust that drift to form a low, inversion air dome that settles over me in the cold of the morning there’s no way to stop that song from coming to mind, that song DJs get in trouble for playing but can’t resist every year about this time … […]

Five Purple Martins fly through the powdered-up air, in a southerly way–there’ve been none for a couple weeks (and now, there will be no more martins after these.) Still, the day warms nicely, rises by about 50 degrees and the dragonflies come out in swarms at The Stockpond. Today Nancy, Tom and I see yet another new one, red and black striped, with clear but bluish wings, with red veins on the forward edge of those wings.

The three of us continue the job of digging mesquite, though a number of the little, nasty-thorned trees are growing out of gopher burrows and are easy to remove from the softened ground and air shafts. One shovel turns up an exquisite, one could even say dear, little toad, brown, with raised patterns that are bright Chinese red, as if it had adorned itself with garnets or rubies: the Red-spotted Toad.

August 27, 2013

Purple Martin ways, they are a-changin’. Though they’re still content as can be, we are given to know that we are to enjoy them while we can. Summer grows long, the year will be growing late, but still it’s 95 degrees this afternoon. Within days the Martin kind scattered over much of the country and Canada should begin passing on their way to another America, America del Sur, and pick up to go along with them our local martin-folk. They are not up there singing any more in the dark before sunrise. In the mid-day they are high in the sky, so high I cannot see them but can hear their chatter. In that richest of late day light, each round separate cloud chimes with bells of Martins unseen, then the birds all drop and swoop and play in the winds low just above my head, then swirl up and around the family saguaro standing on its ridge crest against tall white cumulus that have cried out their Monsoon tears for now.

 

August 17, 2013

The night air is about 75 degrees, the casa hotter than that so it feels like the Palm House at Kew. I simmer in bed with coffee and KCBS AM radio news coming across the deserts from that station’s chilly San Francisco home. The skin prickles with heat. Moths flutter all over the rooms, on the lampshades, the insides of screens, on my arms, float on the sink dishwater left over from last night, are in the refrigerator where at least they’re rather sluggish, even drop in through the narrow spout of the glass coffee pot, fall in there, drown, get poured into my cup. It’s the season of towering, lit clouds in the day and at sunset, but outside the night in the hour before dawn the sky is completely clear, a rarity. Flashes of light rise from below the horizon, telling of storms far out of sight over The Rim in a higher, even more lightning-prone country. As the stars fade a very few Purple Martins sweep for bugs overhead; lately their chatter is overwhelmed by the songs of Black-throated Sparrows who live all across these mesas and ridges of Pool Wash and Sierra Blanca. The Martin activity in these hours of madrugada continues to diminish.

No, no way to go back to trying to do a quick and intense documentation of the species at this true height of summer here–I have to be content with what can be noticed and caught sight or ear of during the long hours of attending the cow and calf, which include the lessons necessary to give that bull calf that we hope will get him to find mamma’s milk fountain more attractive to suck on than my knee, her leg, her flank, or the pedal squeeze on the cow chute, which are all things he tries laying his lips to enthusiastically while he ignores Molly’s milk fountains. (I absolutely drew the line on the calf’s “cheekiness” when while I was bending over to fill his bottle the he whipped around behind me and tried to latch on in each their turn to both halves of my, um, back side…) I hope soon it will be possible to go back to the usual chores whose everyday demands do at least expose a hand to what’s coming and going and staying in Nature on the Pastures–the irrigating and the making sure that irrigation stays efficient, the cow moving, digging mesquite, trying to fix cursedly disintegrating fences or fences buried in silt from summer sheet floods, fences pushed over by cattle who’d rather skim that buffet than this one, unloading and stacking hay, putting gates that cattle have torn to pieces back together, keeping horses in rein and in practice, rounding up and returning bovine escapees, ingratiating one’s self to newborn calves, filling the pond with water, controllng alien weed species, checking on cows in our other “units” scattered over miles of Cascabel Road, filling holes in the roadway of The Lane, moving wheel lines, oiling drive chains, raising, lowering, building portable electric fences, rebuilding blown out water mains, hauling steers to the packing house … … …

Young Summer Tanagers are wheezing, hidden away in the thick bosque canopy, giving out those sounds that for years tricked me into thinking there were an awful lot of Tyrannulets around. A Western Tanager flies down The Lane, a common enough sight there in the migration of spring but it’s been a few weeks since the last was here and in my notice; more should be coming down from the mountains, though. Every one of the five pastures has its own Western Kingbird family, soaring, parrying, ducking, flashing and twisting in flight, playing–I don’t hold a doubt about the Tyrant Flycatchers having a sense of fun and even mirth!

August 15, 2013

The Ides of August, the Ides of Summer for birds and the wildings, but the appearance of those Red-winged Grasshoppers tell that the nagging of winter pasture preparation and seeding and irrigating will soon be more shout than whisper. We’ve got at least as far as confining the Mason Pasture herd to one 350 ft. X 850 ft. swath (about seven acres) of bermudagrass, between two lines of electric fence with an exit to the pond, so cow folk can eat off the crop almost to the ground and make that ready for tilling six weeks or two months from now, clean out around the mesquites that must be pulled or dug out so that the rattlesnakes coiled below them will be more visible.

There are many baby birds cheeping away in the mesquite branches, probably second broods all. I want to spend two or three days right now, though, making a bird list, during these last moments when the summer still feels long and sweet …

Yellow Warbler (singing)

Yellow-breasted Chat (singing)

White-winged Dove

Lesser Goldfinch

Vermillion Flycatcher

Bell’s Vireo

Blue Grosbeak

Purple Martin

Summer Tanager (singing, and call notes)

Mourning Dove

Bewick’s Wren

Verdin

Abert’s Towhee

Lark Sparrow

Gray Hawk

Cardinal

Red-tailed Hawk

Gambel’s Quail

Crissal Thrasher

Black Phoebe

Western Kingbird

Savannah Sparrow (rare–but not unknown to be arriving now for winter)

The River is running, madly … many large blue dragonflies on The Stockpond, and “Whitetails”, or as I call them, Saddle Shoe Dragonflies. Bugs that like to harass humans are doing that, aplenty, worst of them are the tiny loudly singing gnats that fly into the cavern of an ear opening, get louder and louder but then their whine is suddenly cut off when they ditch into the pool of sweat that’s collected just inside the earlobe’s tinaja. This unpleasantness is made up for when the air is thick with the incomparable sweetness of huisache acacia blooms.

One of the cows, Molly, has had a bull calf and I’m worrying over both of them–the baby doesn’t know how to suckle, or maybe even that it’s supposed to. Mamma’s not looking all that good either, uh oh, a big chore coming on. I think she had it Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. … Save the life of my child/cried the desperate mother

August 3, 2013

Never have I seen such a beautiful alignment of The Heavens as arranges itself on the low horizon of the East at 4 am, a while before first light … Jupiter … Crescent Moon … Orion … above them all, the Pleiades. The martins do not add their own vocal sparkle until 4:30 or so; something changes with them, they fill the air later, closer to sunrise which is itself coming later but not so markedly as to explain the change in the birds’ schedule.

The morning air is thick, thick with humidity, thick with Mourning Doves, thick with the whistling of dove wings. I find a single Kochia scoparia–“Poor Man’s Alfalfa”–a Eurasian amaranth brought in long ago in hopes of improving cattle grazing but now widely invasive on The River not far from Mason’s. It hasn’t been noticed right here before, and we may not welcome it particularly given the reports of its toxicity if not given tedious management. Oh goody, another weed problem. “Oh well, at least we’ve got the flowering stage Bull Thistle in here taken care of,” I gloat to myself of course just before finding one of those. Hubris, and payback.

As this humid day winds down, but long before sunset, I sit in the truck at the edge of The Stockpond and listen to the mellow whistles of a Blue Grosbeak still singing out his mating song and territorial declarations. Then, out from the grove of mesquite and hackberry to the right comes floating–for it seems barely to move, and is more suspended in the air with how it can fly with hardly a wingbeat–a bat larger than any I’ve yet seen in Arizona. Oh it is superb, of a strange color and pattern, flashing pale brown and darker brown and I suppose it is a trick of the light that makes its wings looked striped as it comes back and forth across the pond. In this flight it is slow and graceful, its wings whose whole span must measure at least a foot across are hardly pumped; it barely dips in its slow and level movement to the water for a dainty, quick sip. All this would be incredible enough, but the ears–the ears look impossibly large. They are very long, and stick out in front of the head nearly horizontally or at not much of a raised angle, with ends flipped out and up like a pair of antlers! After good long looks at it with binoculars, I see it alight in one of the little mesquites on the bank and swing there for a while, lick and groom its wings and body happily, with an uncannily friendly look on its face. It drops out into air and swings low back over the water for another drink, and does this repeatedly until thirst is quenched. [This habit before the light was gone will not match anything I can find on large Arizona bats with huge ears, but Nancy F. helps with the identification by contacting her bat biologist friend Ronnie S., who kindly gave advice and thinks it likely is the Townsend’s Big-eared Bat. Everything I read about the species does confirm this; I never see another, it is amazing luck to have been there for this one’s visit.]

July 25, 2013

Spadefoots pipe in the murky water of the seasonal dirt stocktank, and at the main pond that Summer Tanager sings away purely in the madrugada as if it is still Spring, one Great Horned Owl hoots as if it is still night. Song Sparrows are also in song, which hasn’t been heard for a while, and the tune and lyrics of the local subspecies gives me to remember that the melodies of the ones that were such a part of the arrival of my childhood’s Springs on the Eastern Seaboard do differ, not by much, but enough to be interesting. They also look different, enough that it took me a while to decide that what I was seeing here was the same species. For those really advanced birders, the many regional forms were outlined in my first field guide’s appendix, but mostly it seemed people in those days were only concerned with the general species–such as “Song Sparrow”–much in the way that nobody in the era would have found a need to know how much the temperature one neighborhood over varied at the moment from their own, as is presented now in all television weather coverage.

Mosquitoes. Mosquitoes.

A young Western Kingbird has grown to become talented enough to catch a hairstreak butterfly, though has some challenges getting it down. There is a flash of red from its bill lining when it opens wide and tries something else … the first returning, rare early Tree Swallows appear in those pastures, and many Lark Sparrows are back in view. Abert’s Towhees are doing a lot of singing, sounding not quite like robins, not quite like sparrows. White-winged Doves are also cooing as if it is still Spring, another cuckoo I haven’t heard much of calls from the riverside bosque towards the old Lancaster Ranch, and the cuckoo at the pond also declares its territory.

Coulter’s Spiderling (Boerhavia coulteri) is the next herb coming up strongly and abundantly, rushing quickly to blooming stage everywhere there had been nearly bare soil; there are acres of it.

It’s been a couple of weeks since The Stockpond was much visited in the evening by the martins, but tonight they buzz in five or six at a time, with many more circling in holding patterns waiting for an open slot to approach the water.

July 12, 2013

The stars are dim through the clouds, vanishing for moments in violent lightning, martins are up there flying in their usual places before dawn, calling to each other and earth, their voices vanishing for moments in overwhelming thunder. Spadefoot Toads are stirred by the rumble, and continue sending their melody up from the far bottomlands. The River itself sings all the way to El Potrero.

Summer Tanagers are still singing their full repertoire at the Mason Pastures, where a Spotted Sandpiper pays a rare summer visit for a day at The Stockpond. The sandpiper is still in breeding plumage, spots and all–a wanderer from the confluence of the Gila River and the Bonita, where it is thought to breed sparingly?

July 9, 2013

It seems I’ve awakened again in Hilo, rain pattering on the window, mists and clouds settled upon the cliffs and hanging valleys above the San Pedro. Pat and I will saddle Nimby and Loompy, go up on the ranges with them and see how nine days of Monsoon rain will have brought change and green and flowers.

I pass under a soaring Swainson’s Hawk on my way north to El Potrero, and once there find Nimby looks surprisingly clean even though he’s black, but Loompy? He looks like a New Guinea [Asaro] Mudman, and it takes a good while to comb him out and get him back to his bright sorrel color. A glorious day to ride, even though humidity hovers around 100% and the temperature hovers near 100 degrees. All is riotous, lush, colorful, fragrant–Loompy chomps off a swatch of Desert Oregano that grows just at the narrow gate that is usually mine to dismount to open. Enveloped in the plant’s delicious spice, I swing into the saddle again, if it can be said that a sixty year old can “swing” at all … […]

Pink Mammilaria cactus in bloom just about everywhere … the vast flats of huisache no longer look furnace-dried and brittle (if not killed outright) by that late freeze and the ensuing drought, but are green with feathery new growth … the sproutlings of yellow Devil’s Claw of a month ago have spread into mounds of shiny green leaves … Three-awn and Muhly grasses are in near complete rebound from the winter grazing of the herd … and the rains have even tempted the Saguaros to push out a couple large and very late flowers.

The rains are coming evenly and are most welcome, but they aren’t giving enough accumulation for the needs of bermuda pasture and so I go to Mason’s to set irrigation for the night. Blue Heron is at The Stockpond, his usual jumpy self. A good number of martins are overhead but don’t give much of a lengthy evening show, male Vermillion Flycatchers are in a rumble of bluff, bravado and defense of the choice real estate–but then come in many more martins, five or six at a time, slicing the water across much of the pond or are more dainty in their approach and drinking, a few others splash onto the water like the Flying Boat landing on a lagoon. Only two nighthawks appear, at 7:30 in the last pink Monsoon light set with thunder from the higher country.