April 29, 2013

Queen butterflies and a very large Blue (what species? and we think sandpipers are a challenge to tell apart …) are seen here and there, not much yet. Too early for Monarchs. What there are a lot of are Kingbirds, I have never seen so many in one place yet it’s reported to me there aren’t many elsewhere on The River. Here on the fencelines of Pasture #3 was a Konvocation of Kingbirds, a dozen or more, the acrobatics of their flight a thrill to watch as always–each one more beautifully plumaged than the last, grays, olives, blacks, clean white, shimmering yellow. Almost all were Western Kingbirds, among them a single Cassin’s, which is growing to be one of my favorite birds. Still a few White-crowned Sparrows in the brushy alley that borders the pasture, and overhead, recently arrived for the summer, a flock of burbling and bubbling Brown-headed Cowbirds, their notes dropping to the ground with the sound of water splashing into the Stockpond. I’ve read that it’s a mystery how the birds learn these sounds and songs, given that other species with other things to teach their actual young are who raise the cowbird from egghood. More mystery here, to let be.

Heading back to the Stockpond, I opened a “cowboy gate” to get out of that pasture, and noted a Lucy’s Warbler very near in the mesquite branches and unruffled by my presence. It had dried grasses in its bill, and was obviously heading towards a nest being built somewhere, then right in front of me it dropped down to the massive old railroad tie post onto which the gate was hung. It vanished for a few moments on the other side of the tie, then popped back up into sight, looked at me again and flitted off for more building material I presumed. Once I got the gate looped-up and closed, I went around to the other side of the post and sure enough, there seen easily within the rotting out heart of the railroad tie was a nest appropriate to the size of this sprite of a bird. It wasn’t very enclosed by walls of wood, in fact it was in more of a ledge that had formed about a third of the way into the body of the tie, with a wide crack above for entry–one would be able to see very easily the eggs that would come, and the nestlings. It still was no place one might imagine a cowbird getting into and in there wedging its outlaw egg, but it’s reported that this is just what happens. The nest I found today is at least the fourth I have come on in exactly this sort of place–a railroad tie gate post with some degree of decay–over the years of being a ranch hand, and invariably the birds have raised their broods despite my constant coming and going on one chore or another that demanded opening and closing their gate, and the babies and parents have been completely at ease with my getting glimpses of their progress. I don’t see any mention of such a thing, such a nesting site, in the professional literature, and Cornell states flatly that the species does not use nesting boxes. I would sure describe these railroad ties as such! or at least they could inspire the design of one that the Lucy’s Warbler would be willing to accept.

Back at the irrigation riser that’s filling the pond, the temperature is climbing well past 90, towards 100 degrees. A female Broad-billed Hummingbird drinks from the hydrant leaks at the top, and what turns out to be the last Vesper Sparrows come desperately to the pools as well–another of those species that leave of a sudden as May’s heat comes in ferociously, to head for the Mogollon Rim a mile higher, and points north from there. The usual Black-chinned hummer males describe geometrics on the air, zipping around in almost impossible moves over the whole pond and in the noonday shimmer, a Common Yellowthroat and very red Song Sparrows come for sips, too. Most dainty of all are the gigantic (many would say, frightening!) Tarantula Hawks that land some distance from the edge on muddy footing, and carefully tread to where they may press their lips to the water. They take long draughts. Everyone leaves alone these extras from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, for they’re packing heat like no other creature. A Summer Tanager that’s even more red than the wings of the Tarantula Hawk comes down, but perches on a rock out in the middle, and before he lowers himself to the edge of that rock to reach the water, has his perfect double reflected in the surface.