Ten degrees last night
blue swallowtail glides, hungry
no flower to find
Ten degrees last night
Ten degrees last night
blue swallowtail glides, hungry
no flower to find
A Merlin comes along like a winged bullet, only a foot off the ground it shoots across The Lane in front of the truck. The sneakiest of predators! no one is safe. I don’t know if this individual is the same that has come to be with me over the last few Winters, for it takes no alarm at my presence or my workaday moves through the pastures–it has sometimes come bombing up from behind me as I walk through the grass and check to see whether the ground is dry enough after irrigation to take cow foot traffic safely. This wild and formidable bird of prey may pass so closely that it seems I could raise my arm and it would alight on my wrist as if I were a Mongolian falconer.
In the long mesquite-bosque’d alley that runs between #2 and #3 pastures to The River, I search for Mycha’s day and a half old black calf she’d probably left there for the Universe to care for (or, eat!) while she went to loll about The Pond far away. I find a small black grasshopper with an iridescent sheen, a kind I don’t remember seeing before, impaled on a barb of the top wire of the dividing fence. It’s always interesting to have a look at a shrike’s larder, but as I get very close to the victim it moves a leg, and then both antennae one at a time slowly back and forth. I wonder how many people have seen a shrike putting away food for a later day. I must have missed the event by only minutes. Like a Roman citizen must have, I shrink away from this Spartacus and feel equally behooved not to interfere. The bird had sung its own version of the ballad of outlaw Claude Dallas, “… and a shrike’s got a right to hang some meat when he’s livin’ this far from town.”
I go the rounds of checking sprinkler nozzles for blockages or being jammed in place and not turning in circles, and a big kettle of vultures rises and rotates up from the Valley floor: they must be gathering. Every year I think we should throw them a going away party!
Through the binoculars I use to watch the wheel line irrigator in #2, I catch sight of a good-sized butterfly crossing the pasture. It looks like a Monarch … or is it just that I want it to be a Monarch? It flaps and flaps and works, rises and rises at a 45 degree angle until it is very high (for a butterfly anyway) and then glides … and glides … and soars like a Children’s Day kite. Back and around and dipping, with hardly a pump of a wing now, it’s not on its way to anywhere, not hard put to look for food–it’s just enjoying the sublime pleasure that comes of its abilities. The Universe has a sense of humor and fun, so why shouldn’t a Monarch? Why shouldn’t we?
Five Gulf Fritillaries, a half dozen Queens, a Checkerspot, a Skipper, lots of Swallowtails … the Route 66 Butterfly Cafe is open at El Potrero just outside the swing of the door of my winter quarters, the cowboy caravan. Three large pots together form this butterfly garden whose roots are held out of the way above the gopher runs: lots of striped and spotted “Pop Art” zinnias, a huge Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia) and a wide-sprawling shrub of “Blue Mist Flower” (Ageratum/Eupatorium/Conoclinium/Whateverit’snamedthismonth) throwing branches of robin’s egg-colored flossy and frothy blossoms every which way. I’m pleased to be the candy man for these beautiful little creatures, the fritillaries are mad for the Tithonia’s petals that are so flaming an orange that they shine purple, mad for the even brighter yellow disc flowers in a crown at the center of a bloom. Many of those petals don’t survive the visits of the giant grasshoppers, who are exquisites of the most discerning taste; the marauders are interested only in those orange butterfly landing pads of petals, and never bother to munch on a leaf or stem. One fritillary is holding itself rather oddly, and then I see it’s in the prayerful grip of a fat mantis who offers thanks for the butterfly manna. And then–a larger butterfly than the others … a Monarch! It seems for the first time I know why it is named thus, for a richer orange, walnutty-amber and bejewelled insect there can’t be. I’m aware how special is this visit to the late summer blow-out of the flowers, and have a little hope the Monarch won’t wander over near the Praying Mantis who with slight of folded hands turns the molecules of these butterflies into the eggs and egg case she looks soon to have to squeeze out …
Instead of Autumn leaves, we have the bright yellow-green large Sulphur Butterflies that swirl up and circle and dangle and dance as if they were maples and ash lifted in the wind.
When did we notice we weren’t noticing Monarchs any more? At last! … yesterday Pat and I were returning to El Potrero over the uplands of our Cascabel Pasture and revelling in the splendor of this year’s range with thunderstorms round about the east and south horizons, when suddenly my attention was focussed away from getting toasted by a bolt of lightning to a single Monarch Buttefly sitting out on the tip of a Palo Verde branch. Like many of us, I grew up with Monarchs: in mid 20th century they were as ubiquitous as white bread, so much so that a kid butterfly collector couldn’t be bothered with chasing, preparing and mounting one or giving one space in a display frame. For Monarchs, all you had to do was look outside. Who’d ever have thought that in our lifetime the taken-for-granted creature would become poster-bug of the environmentalist set? Yet even I, who test for faddishness every threatened and endangered alarm that “trends”, was stopped in my and Loompy’s tracks by the shimmering and orange and black and leaded-glass window wings of old friend Monarch. “Where have the decades gone?”, I asked him. While I’ve watched and watched and watched over the summers and autumns, I was never able to turn any of our common Queen Butterflies into this now-charismatic Monarch. I had forgotten how startlingly different the two species look one from the other, until yesterday when even from a good distance this butterfly was so obviously neither a Queen nor a Viceroy but yes, a Monarch. It sailed off, looking for more nectar, which it sure won’t be having any hard time finding, the range is so in bloom and has been straight through from those first wildflowers of February to now even in October and likely on into November. This seems to be another Spring for a number of those same earlier species! I don’t see milkweeds in those uplands, however, though there is a boom in climbing Sarcostemma below in the valley bottoms for them. We’re still riding Nimby and Loompy through gardens and seemingly arranged displays of pink Fairy Duster, purple, yellow, or blue “composites” in near overwhelming array, and even Ocotillo and desert Sumac coming back into flower. It just fills one with wonder.
The night was warm enough to have slept without a blanket. Ruby-crowned Kinglets are in the nearby giant of an Afghan Pine, giving out their oriole-like chatters and beautiful motets scaled down to miniature as befits the size of these friendly green sprites.
The oats and barley of Sam’s yet ungrazed winter pasture is already shooting out sprays of flowers, before February has ended. This day will come to feel roasting in the 80 degrees of heat, which must signal to the cool season, “small grain” grass crops that they must produce seed before Winter skips right into Summer. There’s been no rain, neither in this month nor last, none since Christmas, which demands of these grasses they bolt and drop seed before they’re turned into hay by drought and the bake of sun.
As I sit in the pickup and scan The Stockpond, the first fly of the year big enough to buzz annoyingly around my face and ears circles round and round inside the cab. Venus the heifer sticks her head through the window, drops out a tongue that would alarm the rock band KISS, she thinks I’m her adoring head banger and wants to lick me as much as I’ll allow. It’s hard to hold binoculars still enough to study a duck’s speculum while a cow’s tongue is wrapped around one’s wrist, and tugging. Neither Cinnamon Teal is present today, but the pair of Mexican Mallards are, and the female Vermillion Flycatcher who is not wanting much to be in the treetop with the male in what he thinks should be a fetching scarlet hussar’s tunic. “How can she resist me in this uniform??” She’ll have none of it. “I’m not that kind of a girl!” Or, is she the coquette? Black Swallowtail Butterflies and Sulphurs are underneath, dancing, having a mud party.
Storm clouds! … high, blue and cream-colored, with layer cake tops reflecting as a circle in the pond late in the day, the Mexican Mallards’ dabbling making ripples go out from this brightly lit center to the edges, the water pale blue though Sun is gone. Silver sky in the North, with throw-pillows of white clouds darkly, ominously edged on their sides, their bottoms thick, even blacker.
Anticipation and a joy that it is hoped is not misguided rises in Cascabel. Under the Mae West Peaks, it’s going to rain!
I set into digging out the next of many T-posts along the road that have long been half-buried in rock and silt by the sheet flooding of decades, and with the trench shovel pop out a beautiful, large white-bellied mouse, who lands next to my feet and is very friendly for some moments–then the poor thing’s daze wears off suddenly and it bounces off in lightning speed, aware obviously of how many and how varied are the creatures that would swoop and zero in on it. A tiny green winged aphid is on my shirt.
The pasture grass shines back the late rays so intensely into my eyes that I’m left green-blind for long moments, but I make out the many dragonflies, Sulphur Butterflies, mists of Cucumber Beetles a-hovering and drifting, little golden beetles, and in the last hour of sun, a big bug-hatch of black gnats that must be slipped through to get to the wheel lines to be moved for tomorrow’s watering.
After Sun slips just under the highest ridge, six Mule Deer, six dark bodies, each with black ears in a V, are there against the broad dark green, graze eagerly the oats and the barley they seem to know somehow has too been provided for them. Winter feels to be vanishing in all other ways but in this sunset, and once again with arms embracing our Querencia the mountains all around are shining and dark, but tonight it’s the Galiuro that are bright in their last moments of Sun, the Mae West Peaks lit too, with all the other ridges high and low, east and west, but Sierra Blanca tonight is dark. The Stockpond glows azure, coral and flamingo, as does the sky over it. Dark has almost completely settled over us as I get the last wheel line moved into place but the air is downright hot, though it cools quickly after that to become very pleasant. Everybody is talking about the weather, realizing the more that only Winter’s horse has come back in, dragging its saddle with rider lost, and there is unexpressed worry. A bat flits over the Cascabel Road, James and Chris tell that they’ve been seeing them, too. 82 degrees in the valley here today, while 18 inches of snow fall on the East Coast.
The Mourning Cloak, in so many other places the harbinger of Spring, appears today as if its alarm clock hadn’t gone off and everyone else has arrived already, but no matter, seeing the first of them will always give thrill to a naturalist’s inner child, and stoke memories. Red-brown dragonflies with blue-tinted wings are buoyed on air that already approaches what are summer temperatures in many places, and I wonder if we won’t hit 80 degrees today. A bobbing out there on the water, and a sending out of rings of tiny waves in all directions catches my eye: a large moth, on its back (the Lepidopteran Backstroke, I suppose) is trying to get to a bank, but how did it just fall into The Stockpond? What beauty … with forewings having two diagonal white bars across them over gray, pink lower underwings, a bright red-brown body. This must be the Tricolor Buckmoth, a species special to the Greater Southwest on both sides of The Border from Carlsbad through Sonora to the Baja and Arizona.
The tiny grasshoppers in their thousands are still on the irrigation hoses.
A pair of Red-tailed Hawks swing in tandem, mirror each others steps and romantic dance moves in what I can only think is honeymoon glee and grace. They race across the fields and then in a couple of broad circles high and then low shoot into the Saguaro Canyon and out of it again, come over me, bank hard and head back to the dividing ridges. Their shadows, cast sideways by the horizontal light of late day, race up, up and up the slope and close in on the pair they’re chasing, until those shadows meet the birds and fold themselves into them them as the hawks come almost to brush the ground at the rocky crest, and vanish then down into the next canyon.
The Sun is … different. Spring.
Lots of tiny flies; a butterfly with highly scalloped forewings with a white spot at their tips, entire-edged rearwings with a forward placed black triangle; Bronze Dragonflies.
Bob comes to help dig mesquite, and reports there are Mexican Mallards on The Stockpond and while we are working, he finds the first Filaree in bloom with its flowers of an odd hue of magenta washed with blue. A brown and russet young Harrier patrols around us on tilting wings.
The day warms … and warms … … 78 degrees … … and out come more Bronze Dragonflies and even Sulphur Butterflies. Well so much for Winter, which I’ll declare has lasted all of six weeks and two days, and began the day after I marked the end of “Fall” when the last of the Sulphurs were a-wing in mid-December on the last day of that month that had reached 75. My shirt is soon darkened by sweat as I dig out those T-posts of the fence long ago so buried in silt and gravel of sheet flooding that Mycha can lightly step over it and get loose on the Cascabel Road if the top wire isn’t raised by another two feet to that optimum 48 inches. Already chores like this one are nagging me, that I’m afraid won’t get done before Summer but better well be. There’s not much I hate more to hear than a voice on the phone telling, just as I’ve put feet up, “Um … your cows are out.”