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… […]