The air freshened at last (even became shockingly brisk when a couple recent nights dropped down into the 30s!) and birds are leaving, birds are arriving, and maybe most interesting of all, birds are wandering.
The avian life on The River this September has been thrilling, starting with that friendly Eastern Kingbird that kept me company awhile on the 3rd of the month, for one day perched mostly on the low electric cattle fence wire when the plague of grasshoppers the likes of which I haven’t seen was in its first few days upon us. I’ve come now to expect an Eastern Kingbird to wander through during this season: they’ve been late Summer/early Autumn visitors on one side of the San Pedro or the other over the years. They’re always alone, usually here for a brief moment, always very beautiful and always much harassed by the (Wild Wild) Western Kingbirds who seem to think this most dapper of their fellows is “a greenhorn, just escaped from town” and they’ll get some kicks screaming out at him, “Dance, ya varmint!”
Early in the second week of the month, on a day when I was getting the workings of the Winter pasture planting underway in earnest and heading to climb into the Silverado here on Firesky Ridge before the shine of the first rays of Sun, from the North was coming toward Ridge House a broad dark line of large birds. It seemed a huge, floating arrow pointing South that told, “This way, if you’re sane!” Ibis? I’d seen ibis flocks passing in other years, but far higher overhead than is this ridgetop … and I could hear these as they got closer making strange little sounds. (The only ibis I’d ever heard being vocal were the Hadada Ibis that often flew over the farm in Kenya, loud, raucously calling out and sounding just like that old time comedian, Steve Allen, “Schmock! Schmock! Schmock!”) They were geese, Greater White-fronted Geese heading this way and slightly off towards the River–fifty of them! They passed the backdrop of the high mountain that was painted in that glorious pink glow that comes to it in the seconds before sunrise, the big flock a telephone pole’s height above me and just off the point of Firesky Ridge, little white faces plainly visible, with little sweet and chirpy honks from the face of this one or that scattered up and down their long line. I know my jaw was dropped wide open while I stared at those faces and wings, while they all passed by so close and low it seemed in slow motion.
“Our family” of Mexican Mallards has returned to The Stockpond, five to eight of them there most every day and over the last two weeks they’ve been kept company by a young and almost fearless Great Blue Heron. Just before Heron arrived, the Pond had become so full of Bullfrogs that the outward circle of its water would be a complete froth of them jumping wildly from the banks and skipping four or five times across its surface before they’d plunge out of sight, all with attendant screeches and yurps. I expect by now Heron has about cleared them off and is going to have to search out a newly laid sideboard of frogs’ legs elsewhere. It’s the end of the Purple Martins for this year–none have been in the air since a good many passed over The Pond a few days ago, but there are still swallows aplenty in mixed species flocks that suddenly surround me, swirl around and around scooping up the awfully plentiful bugs (and I do mean, awful) of this Autumn, then they swirl in their circles on South and gone. There’s a chance a cuckoo or two still lurk but they’ve probably flown; I saw two different ones just before the middle of the month, both gliding gracefully across Cascabel Road and into mesquites far from the River bank, but it’s been a long time since any have called.
Just after the middle of the month a single, very handsomely-plumaged Wilson’s Warbler hopped in and out of the branches at the Pond’s edge when I was having lunch there; it is the only one I have seen in the whole of 2017, there were none in the Spring where in recent past it had been one of our major migrants and its beauty a major enjoyment, and it makes me nervous that this could well be the only one of the Autumn. Our Tom Talbott did report in mid-April that he saw one of these warblers at Sweetwater’s El Potrero Farm. Cornell tells that this bird’s numbers have declined by by more than 60% in the last 50 years. That same day as I was setting irrigation at dawn what was unmistakably a shorebird’s call began drifting down to pasture from high above, from another lone bird. Though about Whimbrel-sized it wasn’t one of those, not with that voice–and the bill was nowhere near the size of a Long-billed Curlew’s. I could only look away from what I was doing and up at it for a second at a time, having to keep close watch as I did on the wheel lines powering up, well, unless I was willing to chance the explosion of a water main deep under me there was no way I could follow this bird’s every move. This sort of thing happens so often as to make me think those spirits on the mountains roundabout have found something good to tease me with. Maddening, but a rare bird identified has to take second place behind keeping the herd in graze … I knew this one was something unfamiliar to me and my brief moments stolen away from the risky work of the moment to see it as it passed South added to its mystery. Recordings of Marbled Godwit I listened to later in the evening online sounded close to what I heard but that many weary hours later my memory could make it what it was I wanted the bird to have sounded like. So–it shouldn’t be writ down as anything other than a possible sighting. (Chris tells me he’s seen a “Garbled Modwit” and that I might have too!)
As the month has worn down, the daily temperatures have soared skyward again (“unseasonably high” as the radio tells–what does that mean any more?), to the point now where my workshirts already by 9 am show dark drenched patches and the day’s first of many lines of salt-rhyme as the breezes that come and go evaporate the wet and evaporative cool me. The Cassin’s and Western kingbirds aren’t getting a single hint it’s time to leave–unless they’re aware of the days becoming shorter as rapidly as they appear to be. Those lively and engaging birds are everywhere, maybe they’ll stay on so long as the grasshoppers remain in their unsettling cloud-like masses and I’d say that will be a while what with all the small instars still appearing. The first Harrier tilted in on the day five of us were planting seed for Winter pastures, Sept. 26th, and the next day out on the rolling grass along the wheel lines I was greeted by eight Western Meadowlarks that must’ve arrived that morning, the first of this “Winter” … um, it’s going to be in the upper 90s the coming week in October, fellas! (I’ve never seen more than one or two of that species when they first come to these pastures and usually all of them disappear shortly after that and no more seen for two or three weeks, I’ve presumed they get replaced and added to by new arrivals.) The handsome Brewer’s Blackbirds, too, have come of a sudden, and as with the meadowlarks the flock of them and I played back and forth around each other as I set the nozzles straight or rolled the lines level and meanwhile, our little Pond was a sight for a couple days in this last week of the month: a Great Blue Heron, eight Mexican Mallards, a fine bunch of Cinnamon Teal coming out of eclipse with some looking strangely like Redheads, and a White-faced Ibis (dark-faced at this season) hung out together amiably, and they all grew to have so little fear of me that if they took wing at all any time I’d draw near, it was only to cross to the other bank to continue their foraging and probing and frog-gigging. The ibis ignored me, and just wandered along until he eventually caught up with the rest of the party once he’d relaxedly circled The Stockpond.
When the teal come to us in these Autumns on The River, for a few days they’re jumpy as those grasshoppers, take off the moment a vehicle comes even remotely in their sight. (They almost always leave the Mexican Mallards behind, who might wonder about the need for all the commotion.) The teal would circle a time or two and then go looking elsewhere–but this year there doesn’t seem to be an “elsewhere” for them with other ponds being dry and soon they come back and plow down into the water, and soon they, too, get used to me and the trucks. I’ve never seen ducks enjoy their bathtub like these Cinnamons! They wildly, feverishly hunt for food and dabble and tip constantly, then all at once the whole lot just wants to bathe and preen and tease each other in peeping mock battles. At some point it all looks like a pool party, one teal and another taking quick turns at jumping straight up off the water, curve in a low arc a couple feet above the surface, tuck their head and drop like a bomb straight down, with such force that they disappear for a moment as if they were Diving and not Dabbling Ducks. They cross each other in mid-air ballet, splash into the center of the flock or some go to the outside, sometimes barely miss each other–there’s one female that loves doing this so much that I swear I hear her yell out, “Cannonball!” in her native Tealish. They all splash, stretch, scoot about flapping and flopping and throwing water at themselves, stand and shake and love trying to nip their neighbors, who always draw back enough to stay barely out of reach. One gets so worked up in the fun that she time and again curves her head down in front of her, keeps stretching and pushing her head under her breast and backwards underneath her until at one point the rest of her body can’t help but come along behind her and she does a very neat underwater tumble roll, her body flipping upside down above the water and then spinning sideways until she suddenly finds herself rolled back upright. “Didja see that?” Her mates get irritated by these performances.
By the third week of September our Ash-throated Flycatchers and Brown-crested Flycatchers of Summer are supposed to have vacated these ranges and gone off South–supposed to, but I’m not sure how to sort out what flycatchers of the genus Myiarchus I see most every year later than that in Autumn, during a time after none of the other species have been present for weeks. These late Myiarchus in question I’ve written up as Dusky-capped in transit to the deep Neotropics, that spend a few days with us after having left their high country to the West. They have just looked different somehow from the Ash-throateds I’d got chummy with all through the Summer. Talk about birdy “dastardly duos” … I’d have to have both in the hand and even then, can Ash-throated that are still on the young side at this time of year be in the size range of the Dusky-capped? These autumnal mystery Myiarchus are always silent, well they have been at least until this season when outside the Ridge House and from just down over the lip of the canyon a set of calls was reaching my ears on a morning a few days before the end of the month. There was something shorebird-like in those notes (it’s amazing how many shorebirds can turn up here) so they had to be looked into, expecting as I did that yet something else weird was in passage like the other many surprises September can bring. But, here in the mesquite that is so dwarfed and gnarled on these uplands was a pair of bright Myiarchus flycatchers, chattering back and forth and they sure looked like those small and slim Dusky-cappeds. A run back into the house to the computer (yeeks, and I was on my way to work …) to Xeno-canto’s bird song website allowed quick elimination of that as the species but instead what they did sound unmistakably like were some of the recordings of Brown-cresteds. (One can listen to 1,068 different listings of those alone, on this “citizen scientist” site, Xeno-canto: http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Myiarchus-tyrannulus ; more might have been added while I was typing this.) Published bird calendars be damned, the Tyrant Flycatcher is The Wanderer incarnate: Ash-throateds turn up on the Eastern Seaboard much later than this, Dusky-cappeds can end up in Colorado in the Winter, our Western Kingbirds sometimes reach the Maritimes apparently stopped only by the North Atlantic Ocean, Tropical Kingbirds of Mexico can set out for British Columbia in the Autumn, this list likely tells of birds fledged this year who are the ones get that bug to wander. What it for sure doesn’t tell is if what I’ve seen is Dusky-capped or not but I still think at least a few of those late season mystery flycatchers have been, if my ability to read the whole aura of a bird is anything to trust.
Tyrant Flycatchers leaving and going every direction of the compass is one of the markers of those change-of-seasons here that people unfamiliar with life on the ground claim we don’t have. On the human side among us who tramp endlessly across these lands in everyday work either on foot or on horseback for Saguaro-Juniper, the planting of the Winter forage acres for our herd at Mason Pasture is one of these thought-inspiring, soul-inquiring markers of Summer into Autumn. How does it come around so fast, the picking up of this massive chore, the seeing get done this thing that so much depends on? By the 27th of September this year those pastures had been mowed, ripped, disced, planted and the soil dragged like a comforter over those billions of wheat, rye, oats and barley seeds laid down–a full two week process, not counting the pulling of mesquite that was labored over starting much earlier in the Summer. One last chore remained after all the helpful crews had gone, and that was to get the wheel line irrigators into their first places for watering to begin the next dawn. It seemed miles were to go before I’d sleep, when the last loose ends of the wheel lines will have been humped and curved and bullied into their places. Only this one in #3 Pasture remained yet to get arranged, and it sat deeply tangled in tall grass and native forbs. The work of getting that very long sideroll free-moving flushed many little dark Lincoln’s Sparrow’s, one after the other after the other: there haven’t been this many of those sparrows around for a number of years though if their recent habits hold true, they’ll stay awhile then slowly their numbers will dribble down as, I presume, most keep heading on into Mexico. There was a Savannah or two as well, and Vespers. A number of Marsh Wrens also flew up from my feet, each moving some yards ahead and then dropping down and out of sight. Will they stick around this year through the Winter, like they used to?
The day was growing older, and with no luxury of time allowing a going off for bird observation I heard to the North yet one more mystery call daring me to guess who might be making it. Three syllables, over and over, high against the puff-cloud sky Monsoon can leave behind, then it would be beyond the bermudagrass half of that pasture, where the bosque was growing taller with every year. The calls were moving from East to West, its author unfindable against the brightness. There was in the sounds the quality of those bold notes of the Abert’s Towhee, the loneliness of the shorebird, and something of a puppy’s squeeze toy … Bub-uhh-WHEET! Bub-uhh-WHEET! … and then of course everything went all quiet just when I couldn’t stand it any more and had begrudgingly dropped my chore to check out what was going on. Then it came from behind me, above but now much closer. I turned from the wheel line (which anyway had pulled itself into gigantic pretzels hooking around drifts of Camphorweed and I wasn’t much wanting to tackle the mess), and saw a large, extra-regal looking kingbird. It was swooping out from a long perch in a big mesquite tree top catching one insect quickly after another but still staying a good ways off from me … I lifted the binoculars finally and saw that what I’d thought was a large black beetle in its bill was no beetle, but the bill itself. The dark mask, the coloring, the unique call, the stance, the size (larger than any other kingbird usually around), its solitariness with none of our regular kingbird crew daring to divebomb or chase it, all those things said, “Thick-billed Kingbird”, the sight of which would make for the reddest of red-letter days in a birder’s journal. How could I possibly take time away from a crucial project that there’s no choice about getting finished or not, and get over to that hedgerow of large mesquite and not have the bird fly off and take the last of its diagnostic marks with it? I had to get close enough for a look at its tail for white edges or pale end-band or a white tip, took a few steps towards it slowly and unaggressively but the bird spread wing and was lifted into the wind that all kingbirds own. But it banked, turned 180 degrees and sailed right for me, lowering as it came, until it hovered for moments not twenty feet over my head, catching bugs and giving a grand aerial performance that left me open-jawed. There were no white outer lines on that tail used as rudder and with such accomplishment, no buff, nor any appearance of its being a wide brush just barely dipped into white paint. A Thick-billed Kingbird, a stray, come North from the Borderline canyons and destined for the Colorado River beyond Arizona’s Great Western Desert? South from one of the nesting spots they sometimes choose along the San Pedro? It stayed in sight and within hearing there the rest of the day, and revisiting it a few times was something I couldn’t resist doing. It kept calling me back. The next day it was gone, maybe turned around right here and made way for the Mexican Riviera.