Monthly Archives: March 2014

March 31, 2013

Black-chinned Hummingbirds are in their spectacular mating aerial dances at El Potrero. As they swing up and down on the wing they purr and putt, the quavering sounds grow louder and dimmer with the swing of the bird on its pendulum course, closer and then away and back again. Did the animation folks who created the Jetsons in the 1960s use this for the sound effect of the futuristic personal flying cars? No sightings or sounds of these hummers at Mason’s, either.

There is appearing a pattern here, of something that may have been happening with every spring, perhaps in reverse every autumn: the returning birds come north in their waves, and eddy and flow around (or over) places that take a little waiting for them to become more comfortable for them. El Potrero is warmer, more temperate than the Mason Pastures–certainly the thermometer readings show this and so singing and courting and avian housekeeping appear to start earlier those miles north at El Potrero. Do more birds come along from their wintering grounds at the right moment to occupy Mason’s areas directly, or are they already present somewhere east, west, north and they swirl on around back to Mason’s when conditions please? The number of species that are showing evidence of this keeps growing–something at least interesting is going on, but … what?

Winter seems about gone though of course we could (and probably will) have a couple snows yet on the higher country above us, and mornings that’ll make us grumble, “Oh this never happens!”, but yes, it always does happen. A lot of wintering birds appeared at Mason’s sparingly or not at all and now their season is winding down–they didn’t come far enough south because of global warming? Winter of 2011-2012 brought great and beautiful flocks of Lark Buntings to us; this year they appeared on only a couple of occasions and in much smaller numbers. Winter before last, often Western Bluebirds would alight all along the wheel line pipes and spokes around me, truly a glittering show and I’d hear their musical “phew! phheww!” overhead, and there were the many Mountain Bluebirds visiting and landing mostly on the open ground, but not a single of the latter species came along this winter. Both bluebird species can be pretty irregular, but the more to be expected flocks of American Pipit didn’t come this year to the irrigated grass, either, though I saw and heard a very few individuals–and no longspurs at all. Long before this time last year Tree Swallow and Violet-green Swallow were passing over our planted grass, but neither of these species has come through yet in 2013. With climate shifting northwards, what might the summer hold for birds on the place? What “Mexican” species might appear?

March 30, 2013

Gray Hawks have moved into the Mason Pastures–swooping in from behind along The Lane, low through the branches at the stockpond, whistling mournfully from the gallery forest along The River. Willows are in fresh, but small, leaf and most of the cottonwood look to be in their full summer emerald already.

Hooded Orioles are chattering at El Potrero, but not a sign or sound of them at Mason’s yet. They seem also late of arrival this year, like so many other birds.

March 25, 2013

One of the mystery wrens flew up from the winter pasture edge and into the low branches of the mesquite that stands alone in field #1: longish barred tail, wide but pale eye stripe, white throat, buffy belly–none of the illustrations in Sibley matched it well enough to say exactly what at least this individual was.

A small black Papilio(?) appeared, with powder blue sheen on its hind wings, also the first Checkerspot butterfly.

A handsome male Common Yellowthroat (whose beauty is anything but “common”, our Southwestern race of this bird seems the most brightly colored of the species on the continent) ducked in and out of those banks of dried tumbleweeds in the old River lane between #2 and #3 pastures, and a little later, I saw a female in a field border closer to the stockpond, off to the south. Will they find each other, and find love? Stay tuned.

March 23, 2013

At El Potrero a Yellow Warbler singing, and the first buzzing chatter of Bell’s Vireo. I’ve heard neither of these birds singing yet at Mason’s […] The first time catching any of their notes, of these two and the Lucy’s Warbler, will always bring one relief that the world is brought back to rightness again.

Ralph W. and I set out for a morning’s survey of our acres of grasslands that are a refuge for wintering birds down from their far off north prairies; I like to think we’re providing for them a habitat that was once much to be seen in southern Arizona but is now largely gone. I’ve noticed far fewer of the sparrows and finches lately, surely many have left but still, the edges are alive and the fences often lined with them. I think the Savannah Sparrows must have moved on already, which might not have been expected until late April (eb’ry’teeng change-up!) but I also suspect that many of the birds we saw today moving like mice through the taller grasses were still this species. In other winters I’ve seen as many as fourteen species of sparrow here (fifteen if you include Chestnut-collared Longspur), but today and this year many fewer, among them Lincoln’s and White-crowned, and we wondered if some of the tinier birds that fluttered up and dropped maddeningly down out of range as we moved through the green of the winter pasture weren’t Grasshopper Sparrow if not that Holy Grail of South Arizona, the Baird’s.

Ralph stopped us dead in our tracks with a call to check out some raptor we could hardly grasp was sitting in the eight inch tall barley and oats not far away at all: a Zone-tailed Hawk that had landed and was, as we found out once it took off, going after a young gopher. In a “normal” year this bird is considered rare in March though now of course all bets seem to be off in this. Beautiful, black, shiny, a golden cere, golden legs, a piercing eye–it lifted off and flew low right over us, circled higher until converting itself stealth-bomber like into a zopilote, or so the late gopher must’ve thought.

In the old lane running down to The River, many sparrows flit in and out of the tall, thick, dried and prickly tumbleweeds. Lark Sparrow are abundant here, and they fill the mesquite edges with their spring, canary-like song.

Later we moved through the most mature of the winter pasture areas, that’d been planted in October and were now about knee-deep and lush; we found it just jumping with little rusty-brown birds. One wren after another took up, made an arch, and dropped back into the deep blades of dark green and of course wouldn’t show themselves again. Some seemed larger than others, and it being the wrong time of year for juveniles to be about, I suspect there are (at least) two species of wrens there enjoying being snowbirds. House Wren? Winter Wren? both? Two species of the same (larger) size and one much smaller? I tried to figure them out this time last year when such wrens were occupying the far north winter pastures instead, but couldn’t do it then, either. Both Ralph and I like the mystery of it, though.

No mystery was attached to the final great sighting of the morning’s birding with Ralph, whom I’d invited on the walk especially to try to “nail down” the confusing and abundant sparrows: when we swung back past the stockpond to see if anything had appeared since earlier in the morning, there in the muddy edge was a Common Snipe and like most such visitors to this rare open water, it seemed not to notice us at all, and we could stare and study Friend Snipe all we wanted at a short distance. While we sat in our bird blind, there came in fast in a silent roar a Great Horned Owl who looked for one frightening moment like he was going to shoot right through the cab of the truck, then zoomed out over the stockpond and was gone. Ralph’s eyes grew wide as this bird that I couldn’t see approached, and both their pairs of eyes must’ve bored into each other as Ralph was thinking uh, oh, there’s about about to be three of us watching that snipe… […]

March 20, 2013

At last the return of those endearing winged friends, Lucy’s Warblers, at the stockpond. Should’ve been long before this that the mesquites be alive with their songs, but the branches have remained silent. Maybe they’d finally realized if they just waited that they wouldn’t have to suffer through deeply freezing mornings, especially in the bottomlands? “How could those neotropicals stand those cold spells that come in for a while after the birds usually do?”, I often wonder, and it looks like they won’t have to this year. It isn’t a species that I’ve seen straggle in a few at a time, no, either the edges and bosques are empty and quiet, or all around the bush is alive with the birds flitting or “warbling”, as if the whole lot of them arrived on the same wind in the night and were completely unpacked and at home by sunrise. Global warming at the bottom of this change, both the lateness of the arrivals and the difference in the patterns once they’ve got here? It’s happening with other species that are part of our lives on the River. I’m reminded of how Jamaicans lamented and accepted their island’s world in the 1970s when I was there: “Eb’ry’teeng change-up!”

A Sulphur butterfly alone in the wide sweep of the fields, and it’s warm enough to have a single frog push off from the mud into the open pond … the last paperthin ice of three weeks ago seems as gone as the Ice Age.

The male Vermillion Flycatcher that has been the cock of this rock for a little while found he had a rival this morning, how disappointing for him. The two of them had a showdown in a tree top above the edge of the pond almost overhead of where I sat in the truck … went at each other in a spiral of claws and bursts of red feathers and slowly dropped to the ground, where they corkscrewed deep into the dust and almost disappeared in the brown cloud. A “dust up”, defined!

March 18, 2013

Pulling up to the stockpond this morning–usually my first stop at “the office”–to see what might have arrived, I had to rub my eyes: floating on their mirror images was a pair of Bufflehead Duck, male and female in perfect, elegant spring plumage, natty, turned out as if they were going to the opera. Never been so close to any as this, and they let me look all I wanted, so desperate for a patch of water and rest did they seem. They were even diving and when I told Nancy that later, she said, “They must’ve got their bills and heads stuck!”

When I got out of “the blind” (the Ford Ranger) they both took off, but instead of beating away in the opposite direction as any teal always do from that pond, the birds came straight at me, and passed overhead only at about ten feet. I could even see the female’s pink toenail polish! (or was it the male’s?) They did a quick circle and came in like phantom jets and landed right back where they were, unconcerned that I was standing there.

Ralph W. told me later that he’d seen a pair like them on the beaver pond on 3-Links a year and a few days ago, and that that pond blew out in recent surges of the San Pedro. I guess the Buffleheads had nowhere else to go now, luckily for us. Luckily for them the Peregrine Falcon that had spent a lot of the winter clearing the ducks off the stockpond (I’d watched it take down a female Baldpate, e.g., while I was attending the irrigation just offstage) has apparently now moved on. There have been far fewer wintering ducks and shorebirds around the stockpond this winter, I suppose we’d traded them for the pleasure of the company of Lord Peregrine.

Cooper’s Hawk later blasting through the mesquites at the stockpond, picking off poor passerines for his potluck. Talk about being “afraid of the arrow that flieth by day”! Finally determined that it is this bird I’ve been hearing out in the bosque over a long time–a voice that is not quite kookaburra, not quite Gila Woodpecker, not quite Pygmy Owl, not quite Inca Dove, but with a flavor of all those.

A first Yellow Warbler came to sip at the edge of the mud.

March 15, 2013

An Elf Owl fussing in the mesquites and saguaro at the Cielo Azul entrance to the Cascabel Pasture; I can’t recall ever hearing their little barks and babblings in the area of Mason’s where many a chore has required my presence into the night. Too many Great Horneds around there?

March 14, 2013

The near-tame male and two female Mallard were back on the pond, and while I watched them a fine-plumaged Green-winged Teal landed on the bank of the stockpond and took a very long time to feel at ease enough to enter the water. He was unlike any other individual of this species I’d ever seen: the shimmering cheek patches were the blue of azurite, rather than the usual malachite green.

At last!–a Turkey Vulture, first I’d seen of the year (though David O. reported some aloft a week before) … it was standing next to the pool in Pasture #1 where a leak has made a near permanent water area attractive to wildlife. The vulture was sunning with wings outstretched and it looked huge. It took off, circled up until it joined another, and then another came into the kettle, … and then another … who needs robins to warble Spring into being? We have zopilotes! In this country there is a pleasure in hearing the news get around in this our own local version of winning the ice-break-up date: “Hey, I saw the first vulture!” “Oh no you didn’t–I saw the first one yesterday!” I love how they look down from a dead snag with that put-out, cranky stare of theirs under an arched eyebrow, and think to themselves, “Oh bother!” and with that, projectile crap a stream of the most loathesome smelling stuff–keep your dogs and horses away, amigos. True Desert Noir, a life twisted, perversely humorous some could say …

March 12, 2013

Watched a splendid male Vermillion Flycatcher using the stockpond for his giant birdbath–he repeatedly dropped from a high branch into the water a few (safe) feet out from the bank, hitting the water face first and going completely under, the process looked like a tern’s dive in miniature but in red and not white. I could watch his back bob to the surface and he’d be out and airborne in such a flash that there was no saturation of feathers to bog him down.

Wandered through the far north “pasture” (#4) to see what might be in this area of vegetation more typical of the arid slopes around us, and found Black-throated Sparrow in abundance; I don’t think I’ve ever seen this species where I usually carry out my work in the lush grasses across the other fields. A Ladder-backed Woodpecker worked over the mesquite there, too.

Bewick’s Wren singing in The Lane.