My fingers are frigid (it’s down near freezing), their cells remember the tropics. Later on I get the first complete face full of winter irrigation water, though it’s much warmer than the air that has got up to 40 degrees. Birds have gone back up to good numbers, equalling the lost summer splendor but their colors are more subdued and subtle, their vocals more quiet and discreet, so different from the Neotropicals who now mostly have returned to their sambas and salsas. For the next six months the sparrows will reign, and I go over and over them in the field guides, as I must every year. I’d have difficulty with some of them even if they were right in my hand.
The day warms comfortably, into the 80s, Red-shafted Flickers have come back from whatever local place they’d hidden out in for Summer and a Phainopepla sings out, “prrrrrt!” in The Lane, back from whatever local place it had also hidden out offstage for the Summer. Then comes a huge arrival of Western Meadowlarks, who claim all the pastures for their own. American Pipits overhead, whistling “Sweet!” while in flight, their movement something between a bat and a Vermillion Flycatcher. A bright russet Harrier (which I’d rather forever call “Marsh Hawk”), its rump gleaming like a spotlight, freaks out all the phoebes. A Sparrow Hawk, errrrr, Kestrel, displays some mighty fine colors, and Killdeers (Killdeer?) are bouncing through the gathered piles of pulled mesquite–and still the winter pasture is not prepared, cannot be planted. An impressive number of White-crowned and Chipping sparrows comes to The Stockpond, to join Lazuli Buntings (and the last are these to be seen) bathing in the cow pogs at the edge of the shore.
Small blue butterflies (Azures? Blues?) are visiting the Burroweeds in #3, which don’t have much in the way of blossoms to offer them any more.
A great convocation of butterflies at The Stockpond mud, on a day the most full so far of these delicate wings … Sulphurs mostly, including many of the large, lemon and bright green Cloudless Sulphur, and the lemony Mexican Yellow Butterfly in dogface pattern, both probably wandering up from Mexico, and doubtless other species of that group are there but too confusing or too far out in the treacherous mud to identify. Snout Butterfly numbers are also on the increase–they must be migrating, too.
A Cooper’s Hawk snatches an on-the-wing Chipping Sparrow that had come to drink with the butterflies; the Wilson’s Snipe I find later out on the edge of The Cienega in #1 Pasture must’ve figured out The Stockpond is too dangerous for it at the moment, and has taken to crouching among deep grass tussocks scattered in that open water.
One of those maturing Vermillion Flycatcher males with patterns so clean and different from the typical adult spends the day on a fencewire. It brings to mind a Trogon, but in miniature. I have several times found ones colored just like this spend the whole winter in places nearby.
Day’s end I straggle up Firesky Ridge to the house, a bit worn by work but brought full back to life by the joy of Three-Quarter-Moon, hung there on the indigo and below her a streaming, sky-wide fringe of flaming mare’s tails, rising high to Moon from the canyons of the Mae West Peaks shadowed Where the Deep Purple Falls.
Northern Mallards have not been on The Stockpond since early May, but one male in eclipse plumage is there this morning, giving another sign of winter’s steady approach–no Kingbirds today, no Vermillion Flycatchers, and it’s been eleven days since I’ve seen a Vulture, making us even luckier that Brindle the Cow holds on still through her mystery illness, still eating, still drinking, still (at least) trying to keep up with the herd.
Pipits have been passing overhead for a week, and today they at last suddenly turn downwards in descending curves, and land on the ground all around me.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A second False Dawn in a row, about an hour and a half before sunrise, bright because of there being no moon but still more detectable if not looked at directly.
“Hundreds of Tree Swallows swirling over main pool” of Whitewater Draw in the Sulphur Springs Valley just to our east says a posting on the Arizona-New Mexico Birding ListServ. There are none on our pond, it seems this valley is not an important Fall migration corridor for the bird, the way it is for a number of other species. There is a Snipe, though, still at The Stockpond, and it’s become even more tame.
We have another newly arrived weed: Salsify. There could be worse things to see come to us unannounced … I don’t think I’ll be worrying about this one if it really takes off.
Three weeks after the last one I’ve seen, there comes another False Dawn. It’s on the thin edge of degrees in the 40s now out there on the ramada patio, and surely it will have come to freeze for a few moments on the open, riverbottom bermudagrass pastures. The house has slowly come to be more closed up in the night, and now for the first time both doors are shut against cold night air.
Snipes are a good way out on The Stockpond, silhouettes with perfect reflections probing the mud, one freezes in a camouflage crouch even in such obvious view as I walk from one truck to the other past them, and I drive out to the herd.
Air is cool if not cold, the dust I kick up hangs in deep layers over green grass sparkling with dew. While my attention has fully to be on such things as a snaky steer that doubtless is fixing to escape the weaning enclosure, I catch sight of a lowering flock of birds whose flight has a familiar and peculiar gait to it, giving me to think that Western Meadowlarks have arrived to decorate our pastures for the Winter with their flash of yellow, flash of white, their fluting and their whistling. There is not time to drift over the pastures with them.
In the afternoon cooler even than yesterday’s, once that snaky steer gets religion and he comes to be resigned to a new order, “Sweet sweet! Sweet sweet!” notes fall to Earth from that highest, wholly blue sky, and settle like feathers in pendulum-drift down to the cattle’s ears and mine: American Pipits, invisible they are so high, but announcing their own return from some alpine meadow.
A drive around the edge of a pasture deep in grass on my way to see if that 1,000 pound steer had settled in with the two heifers and younger steer also being fenced weaned, the truck scares into the air in front of it whirling and clicking Red-winged Grasshoppers–the largest number yet of this brilliant insect that is the long and lingering Summer itself. But no, Summer is indeed ending: the Blue Grosbeak in its immature browns I see today is to be the last, as will be that Western Kingbird.