Tag Archives: Nighthawks

September 1, 2013

Before the first sun lights silver the granite crowns of the Rincon, those broad peaks hover high in cool purple, across the fresh dawn air filling that vast gulf between the truck and them, as I chug and slide down the ridge to the arroyo bottom. The Great Cliffs on the River that frame my workaday world by the time I get to the Pastures are so dazzling in their alabaster that I must squint if I look over that way before the sun has got high enough to put shadows on them. Early September only hints Fall here, but whispers there are, of a change from the comfortable lullaby of Summer on The River. Towards noon the air is 100 degrees–and then on a Mallow as I make the rounds I see some species of caterpillar that looks like a Wooly Bear, mostly orange, but with a long black stripe running its length. Surely this is some kind of Tiger Moth and maybe special to Southeast Arizona, but on seeing it I am standing again outside grade school of fifty years ago in Pennsylvania, full of regret over the loss of vacation freedom but taking solace in that bit of wild that was a Wooly Bear crawling over my shoe. (I remember too another little boy who had noticed the delighted attention I was fixing on the caterpillar, and who raised the toe of his shoe and brought it down in a way he knew would display to me with stabbing effect the squishing out of bug guts to either side–he hoped to keep the world safe from the scourge of future masculine sensitivity that he must’ve divined was on the increase.) This Wooly Bear today is awfully hairy, no way would I think of touching it.

At workday’s end (does a work day end?) I finish those rounds turning off water, come to the darkling Stockpond, from the unending work take solace in the myriad bats and the many Nighthawks coming to drink. I scare up a sunset Great Horned Owl at the Green Gate as I leave, and further on see another in silhouette in a mesquite on The Lane. Poorwills flutter up, and call in the warmth of dusk.


August 21, 2013

Crossing over a fence between #3 and #2 pastures, I stub my foot into a rock that was to my memory not there before, and, well, that wasn’t there before, because it changes into a visiting Western Box Turtle. A large flock of swallows is out over the pastures, haven’t seen many for about a month. Chats are probably just as plentiful as they’ve been earlier in the summer, but are a lot more quiet now. Red-winged Grasshoppers have quickly built to large numbers, and will be abundant for the next couple of months.


August 18, 2013

Hornworms marked with rows of evenly spaced diagonal white stripes are growing fat on the White Horsenettle. These are the Tomato Hornworms justly loathed by Arizona gardeners; they will grow into Five-spotted Hawkmoths, justly loved for the grace of their nectar-sipping evening dance. The revoltingly huge worms don’t just eat up the Horsenettle and other things solanaceous, but also devour plants in the Bignonia group that people treasure in their gardens, like Desert Willow and the Chitalpa trees numbers of Cascabel folk are struggling to get established here. What they’re struggling against is this hawkmoth. Those plants can be defoliated almost overnight, while the eye is tricked in a way that have the worms staying about invisible. A Cape Honeysuckle I had trained up to the eaves during this summer and that was just about to burst into an amazing show of flowers, has over the course of a few nights been skeletonized, most every leaf gone–not until then are the the varmints suddenly visible. Pulling them off is a challenge, they have such a grip, and it’s time-consuming. I’ve found a good whack with the back of a plastic dust brush obliterates them with the satisfaction video gamers must have when they blow away a zombie … Night of the Living Dead Hornworms.

The Sonoran Toadlets are also growing fast, into Toadlings, and they have come to take over the actively-watered area of the native grass pasture project where the soil is moist, the ground soft for easy burrow digging, and there is shade from sprouting amaranths and the already established Six-weeks Grama and Rothrock Grama. It’s a better paradise than any Toad Hall.

The colorful sunset is one to compete with any in the tropics, the temperature’s dropped from 104 degrees all the way to 96! As I make the last work rounds, lightning zips skyward from the Galiuro Wilderness peaks and cliffs where a storm cell has made itself cozy. Lesser Nighthawks are pleasant company tonight, as is Moon, la Luna Llena, who comes to greet from over the ridge to the East and who shines in a thick, humid vapor. The many Nighthawks dip low near and around me and tilting their wings, fly back up in a sweep to crest over the lines of mesquite trees between the pastures. The mosquitoes, though, are a trial with how their whining becomes incessant and my hands, neck, ears and face–the only places not covered by clothing for ranch work–are turned into pincussions.

I stop at The Stockpond in the last moments before it’s too dark for a human to see, and find many bats, small, fast bats this time, making quick circular forays over the water, making a dent in that explosion of mosquitoes. Plenty of Nighthawks are coming for water, bombing in through the bats to get their drink.

At Ridge House, Poorwills call across the mesas in their moonshadows, through a steady hot night breeze.

July 29, 2013

A Great Blue Heron at The Stockpond, at dawn, where I’ve seen one several times this month and last. These birds are supposed to be uncommon here in the summer, guess they haven’t got that news yet. A Western Tanager surprises me with its early descent from the mountain forests and meadows; the last ones seen here were in late May.

Caribbean Horseweed is in full bloom, some also starting to bolt towards seed. In those fields the grasshoppers are still increasing and diversifying, a large bright yellow-green one adds itself to a greater number of these insects than I’ve seen before and my suspicions are growing that we are in for some trouble from them before the season winds down.

It’s been a week since measurable rain, and this is reflected in the sudden return of close to the former number of nighthawks to the evening pond to drink–other places have probably dried off by now.

July 24, 2013

A day to ride the range in air heavy and summer lush, in the light and cool breeze is the promise of rich downpours to swirl up from the Sierra Madre just over our horizon. Swirling up from below us on our horses already is the perfume of the large yellow nodding bells of Cuernitos, Proboscidea althaeifolia, one of the two species here that forms those whimsical fruits we call Devil’s Claw. This is one of the cleanest, richest fragrances of a flower I have ever come on in the world, though but for the level of its intensity, it would be indistinguishable from that of its relative the Paulownia tree of the temperate zone. It is fascinating also that the flowers of this Proboscidea and those of the Paulownia are also nearly identical in size and shape, but are opposites in color–the former, yellow, the latter, pale lavendar. It is a joy to ride on the desert when the Cuernitos is in bloom, as much for what you smell as for what you see, and this year with all its moisture that is especially so.

A totally blue sky arches over us during most of our ride, and then forms a little cloud over the peak of Mt. Lemmon, then another over the peak of The Rincon. By the late afternoon when I go to the pastures to check over things with the herd, those two little clouds have grown and fit themselves together, and grown rapidly then into a monster thunderstorm cell. It’s a Monsoon agate evening sky, the leaf blades of Barnyard Grass under the pink glow of the air above their wide meadows are the lurid color of lime popsicles, lit by the last of a sun about to be swallowed by a black wall of clouds. Swallows are flying, pobrecito Red-tailed Hawk is trying to ditch a kingbird who is flying just above it and delivering pecking blows to the bigger bird’s back, a pair of Great Horned Owls calls back and forth, mosquitoes bite my ears and forehead, a couple of nighthawks are scooping up bugs overhead.

Two nighthawks and a bat sip at the water, and then comes an early night.

July 22, 2013

Many species of dragonflies and damselflies–all of them beautiful–have gathered around The Stockpond, out on that permanent main leak we call “The Cienega”, and over the ephemeral dirt tank. There are, however, no tadpoles to be seen in the main pond! The algae sheets have reappeared of a sudden, and maybe they’re hiding under them.

Bell’s Vireos are chattering from every bosque edge. Caltrops are in bloom out on the pastures, small-flowered species and large, and a single Yellow-headed Blackbird stops by.

A profound end of day calm comes upon these pastures and mesquitales and in the pink afterglow The Stockpond is silent and empty. A single tanager’s “pik-tuck-tuck” from the mesquites off to the West, one nighthawk drinks and is gone, a single new mother cow is mooing impatiently far off.

July 9, 2013

It seems I’ve awakened again in Hilo, rain pattering on the window, mists and clouds settled upon the cliffs and hanging valleys above the San Pedro. Pat and I will saddle Nimby and Loompy, go up on the ranges with them and see how nine days of Monsoon rain will have brought change and green and flowers.

I pass under a soaring Swainson’s Hawk on my way north to El Potrero, and once there find Nimby looks surprisingly clean even though he’s black, but Loompy? He looks like a New Guinea [Asaro] Mudman, and it takes a good while to comb him out and get him back to his bright sorrel color. A glorious day to ride, even though humidity hovers around 100% and the temperature hovers near 100 degrees. All is riotous, lush, colorful, fragrant–Loompy chomps off a swatch of Desert Oregano that grows just at the narrow gate that is usually mine to dismount to open. Enveloped in the plant’s delicious spice, I swing into the saddle again, if it can be said that a sixty year old can “swing” at all … […]

Pink Mammilaria cactus in bloom just about everywhere … the vast flats of huisache no longer look furnace-dried and brittle (if not killed outright) by that late freeze and the ensuing drought, but are green with feathery new growth … the sproutlings of yellow Devil’s Claw of a month ago have spread into mounds of shiny green leaves … Three-awn and Muhly grasses are in near complete rebound from the winter grazing of the herd … and the rains have even tempted the Saguaros to push out a couple large and very late flowers.

The rains are coming evenly and are most welcome, but they aren’t giving enough accumulation for the needs of bermuda pasture and so I go to Mason’s to set irrigation for the night. Blue Heron is at The Stockpond, his usual jumpy self. A good number of martins are overhead but don’t give much of a lengthy evening show, male Vermillion Flycatchers are in a rumble of bluff, bravado and defense of the choice real estate–but then come in many more martins, five or six at a time, slicing the water across much of the pond or are more dainty in their approach and drinking, a few others splash onto the water like the Flying Boat landing on a lagoon. Only two nighthawks appear, at 7:30 in the last pink Monsoon light set with thunder from the higher country.

July 5, 2013

What thick air, 81 degrees, 3:45 am, coffee in hand as can so be enjoyed in a treasured Cascabel Clayworks mug. Dark, but there’s the thinnest of Crescent Moon giving the tiny glow of a nightlight behind the clouds. At zenith a few stars but only one house light shows across the canyons, overhead a covering of martins calling down from so great a height that it could be imagined their quarky notes are broadcast from the stars themselves. The birds seem if anything even more numerous than when the nights are bright and clear but perhaps the clouds change the acoustics. This will be the first day of the season I won’t be closing the windows early to keep in the cool, because the house never got cool to begin with, so the windows will be open to let in any tiny movement of air. Bed sheets and pillows toasted to the high 90s are now to be lived with.

When dawn comes, tanagers and grosbeaks are singing at The Stockpond and many nighthawks come for an on-the-wing drink but–no toads! The Sonoran Desert Toads have just … vanished, the water surface left now unruffled, the air above it quiet. The gigantic amphibians have come and gone, like that.

Yellow-headed Blackbirds are decorating a wheel line tractor, as they love to do. Two much younger ones are among them today, which seems to be evidence the species is breeding nearby though I must remember that years ago when I contacted the Audubon Society in Tucson to report a rancher telling me the birds were nesting in the edge of his pond across the River, I was told that was an impossibility. One of the pretty males has a neat white–rather than black–mask.

Pairs of round mesquite cotyledons have popped above their cow poop peat pots, assuring us a future of hard work of tree removal for many years to come. Two Brown-headed Cowbirds are sitting on a cow; I can count the number of times I’ve seen them actually do this, but I imagine it was their habit with their buffalo friends as well.

Sue and a friend come in the evening in hopes the bird show might still have some thrill to it, but only one nighthawk appears. We do see an impressive black tarantula with blond body come past in its measured, giant spider-ly fashion as we sip wine, a male according to what I can read. Suddenly from the gallery forest of willows, cottonwoods, hackberry and of course mesquite along the River bed behind us comes the sounds of large critters crashing through, breaking large branches and sticks in a panic we can’t think what the cause of can be. We never see the animals, but we can tell they’ve topped out over the steep banks where they could at last make a passage and escape something they feared mightily–then comes what sounds like a rush of wind through those cottonwoods. It’s not wind; I realize it’s a flood, and a big one, and that the deer or the javelina or whatever they were, were running madly ahead of a wave coming down that narrow and deep sandy channel that’s been dry for many months. The water arrives in wild fury, stretches immediately bank to bank, and down its course bounces and tumbles and rolls and then flies past me large branches, logs, whole railroad ties that had been H-braces on a pasture edge somewhere between here and Mexico, bobbing styrofoam coolers, a tennis ball … I jump back, fearing that the overhanging bank would collapse under my feet and add me to the number of bodies that have been swept away and gone over the years, some found, some ground up and never found, left buried under quicksand miles downstream.

July 1, 2013

A couple of hours before sunrise, the patio wet … a moonless, vast land can be heard gladly sipping down into itself what that first, early wild storm of a new Monsoon Summer brought it. My lips have no trouble finding the rim of the coffee cup in the utter darkness. The invisible Purple Martins swirl overhead, sing down through the balmy, soft night of a perfect 71 degrees. I wonder what I’ll find at the pastures. I wonder if there is a road left to get to them on. Now comes the season that folds a tropical saturated air into a stiff batter of monsoon heat, when one’s clothes will be drenched through, with patterns of white edges lined out on it where the salt from the body marks a high tide of sweat. Now come days when it will be 100 degrees and raining, likely to reach a peak a couple months from now when hurricanes can hurtle up from the Sea of Cortez, which after all is just beyond our horizon, and mix even more power into the usual storm cells that can materialize right overhead of us.

The washes and arroyos did run large in that single temporal, but I make it through down Cascabel Road as daylight comes on. Close to Mason’s the torrents had ripped across the gravel and dirt, then ripped back to the other side, then burst through a bank in a fulfillment of some endless memory of the land, and filled to the top with water the old earthwork stock pond that in other years had reached such a state only towards the end of a rainy season. I stop, stare in amazement at it for there was no pond there yesterday, take in the lushness, smell the fecundity and odor of the South Seas. At The Stock Pond I hold up the column of the rain gauge in a joyful disbelief: almost one inch of rain, the first rain enough to comment on since February. Imagine … rain. An inch means I can delay the resumption of the irrigation cycle on the bermuda grass, save money, work at something else, save water.

There is not a bird at The Stockpond–not a bird–though there are call notes in the mesquital, and the down-slurred, slightly peevish whistles of a Tyrannulet; the rich songs of our summer residents are all stilled after the violence of the storm. Those friends are going to try to gather again this sunset time on the banks here to take in the evening bird show that’d got cancelled on us last night by the sideways-driven rains and the lightning bolts and the threat of flash floods coming down the arroyos, but there isn’t much promise of spectacle now that today water can be had everywhere and in abundance. Then a White-throated Swift rockets through over the water, water that is noticeably deeper than at this time yesterday. A single large winged termite drops from the air above onto my thumb–they’re emerging already after only one night of rain. Another White-throated Swift swoops through, with a screaming whoosh so fast as hardly to be made out on its approach, but when it is only a couple feet from my head I get a thrilling look at this incredibly beautiful and dapper bird. The swifts don’t much like the look of the water, which is this morning wholly changed from yesterday–mud where any water open at all can be seen–most of it is carpeted with red algae. There are bubbles rising from below that are then held unburst in the thick red covering that stretches from one shore of newly sprouting Barnyard Grass to the other. Suddenly the air is all Purple Martins, but only one or two are willing to poke their bills into so nasty-looking a pool for a drink. The cattle amble in, also wholly changed after the storm in their shimmering, dust-free coats. Surely the Creature from the Black Lagoon is about to jump up through the only open water edge and snag a calf. We’ll see later in the day if the nighthawks and bats will come as they have been in such increasing numbers over the weeks of a Foresummer that now of a sudden have ended. A fiery Summer Tanager comes to a mesquite tip, sings sweetly, slowly as if he’s afraid of shattering the wet enchantment, the notes seeming to come from a bird ventriloquist, his bill moves so imperceptibly.

Chores mostly done, when Saguaro Juniper folk were drifting into the Cafe du Stockponde, I myself drift on up to see if the herd had learned from the lightning strike that scared their little hooves into a high fandango last night, and were still honoring the electric fence in that #2 Pasture. They had learned, to my relief, for if once they get over to that just water-filled old pond there on the other side of the low and flimsy portable fence, it’d be almost impossible to get them out of there again, what with how they have everything a cow could want in there and with how she can hide from a drover and parry with him back and forth on either side of many a mesquite tree. A Killdeer has come to enjoy the pond’s muddy edge, I can hear. I walk back to the truck through the deep summer grass in late day sunglow and am swept over by a vast number of Lesser Nighthawks, high and low, very near and gliding past in their odd flying style, scattered from right where I stand on out to the horizons.

Evening thunderstorms look like they’ll stay on the mountains, and back at The Stockpond the tables are set, cheese sliced and arranged, wine poured from a bottle, olives readied to be plucked from a bowl. The water is open–not a trace of red algae!–though green algae floats instead in scattered swirls. It’s all Lesser Nighthawks tonight and rather than having decreased now there are so many other places for them to drink, they arrive from the lands roundabout, and arrive, and arrive, and the air pulses and whirs with them and then … shoots down from the sky a Cooper’s Hawk, who stretches out its taloned feet and sinks those claws into either side of a nighthawk ten feet in front of our faces, the nighthawk’s wings raise and are jammed up under the wingpits of the bird of prey and both sail as one off into the bosque where hungry baby hawks watch for their next goodies. We’re just stunned and let out gasps, all the nighthawks vanish, no sound, no movement. Sue breaks the spell that’s taken over the air now empty of birds:

God! Life’s a crap shoot!

June 30, 2013

The morning is hot, smokey, with that odd blue light of a partial eclipse, but what’s being eclipsed is not the sun but the forest in far away New Mexico: my old wilderness haunts there in that high country are again burning. Perhaps some favorite old tree I once talked with in The Gila is now suspended in the air around me on the San Pedro, and I take into my lungs its very elements, absorb it into my body, dissolve it in my blood as it was absorbed already long ago in my mind and memory, woven into the fabric of my psyche. It is strange to see a Nighthawk come in to drink in this dimness at 8:00 a.m.–an unusual addition to the usual morning whirl and gyre of swallows and martins. Something big is up. A little more than a week has passed since Dia de San Juan, the 4th of July a little less than a week from now … one date looked to by Borderers with Hispanic, pre-Gadsden Purchase leanings as the start of Monsoon, the other by Borderers who might think in Manifest Destiny terms. Perhaps the two will fuse at last, when Monsoon comes between the two? That may be what today is.

At lunch a Black Phoebe alights in the six inch layer of dust on the roasting, sunny opposite slope of The Stockpond, flattens itself, spreads out its wings fully, hunkers itself into the dust, droops open a red-lined mouth and simply lies there. I think it must have died in the 110 degree heat, and I walk over in curiosity, but suddenly it wakes and flies off in obvious good health. There are no ants right there, so it wasn’t anointing itself with those insects that some birds work with to discourage feather parasites. I expect it was cooking out the cooties, from above by the sun, from below by heat being released upward by the deep dust.

This Mason Pasture cattle herd has since about that Dia de San Juan been a test of my talents at longsuffering. As our Ellison’s grandmother told him, “A cow will go where she wants to.” Every morning lately I’ve come along to find the portable electric fences pulled into pieces, posts broken in half, clamps neatly taken off battery terminals, beeves and bovinas and becerros scattered across pastures “where they’re not supposed to be” (yeah, I know–as if!) If the recently arrived from range members of the bunch aren’t going to pay attention to this modern method of controlling their grazing, we’re going to have a big challenge in grass management from now on. In the afternoon with the atmosphere pensive and the sky from a distance giving troubled growls, I walk one more time a quarter mile out across the wide flat bottom where I am the tallest thing around, give putting the fence system back together yet one more try, change out the battery, re-braid the fine wires that carry the pulsing electric jolts. Jimmy, Elna, Sue and Bob will arrive soon to watch the sunset-time bird showing at The Stockpond, where I’ve left lawn chairs and little tables for antojitos for us but the day now promises a different kind of show. Lightning bolts come down on the other side of the hills to the East, their thunder grows and it’s all I can do to keep my nerve from unraveling–concentration is put into the quickest re-set of the posts and the repairs as can be done without being shoddy, because the herd must go back into the area or be let into some place else that will demolish the next week’s cycle planned with careful hubris. It is work to stay calm, and keep to the chore; keeping panic from taking over takes a will I can’t be sure will last. If I run for the corner gate and the truck, it will surely catch the eye of the predator lightning and I’ll be toast. The last wires are woven back together to complete the fenceline, and it seems logical to expect lightning then to hit the wire at the other end, while I’m holding it. ((What am I doing out here??)), I think to myself, but it will be finished, has to be done, and there’s an end to it. Meanwhile the the herd has come along and sees me far out on the pasture, and they pile up at a far gate sure I’ll let them in there. They’re always cowvoyant about such things. I let out a Mexican whistle when I’m done, and get back a chorus of excited moos.

All is set, the fenceline and battery test out functioning, the cattle are whistled in and they run, skip and kick by chorttling, and then make a right turn and go directly towards the electric fenceline and the always more attractive side of the pasture with the always greener grass. They come to a sliding stop when they see the line all fixed up again … “curses!”, they whisper. Then … a howling wind of a sudden bowls into us, I have to hold my straw Resistol with both hands or it will blow over the River gallery forest, dust rises thick above the pasture, rises higher in sheets and tails, gets grit up in layers blowing sideways to sting all our eyes and rub out the sharp edges of the figures of the cows. In the moment that many of the herd edge their noses to the wire to check whether it’ll pop them this time, we’re all blinded by a stunning flash of lightning, the bolt hitting the ground between us and the pond, and the near-instant thunder boom scares every cow off their front hooves at the same moment, they’re into the air, on their back legs on which they spin a 180 turn, churn up more and more dust to fly over all our heads in brown curtains. Instead of blowing through the wire and posts as they had planned, they flee in a classic unstoppable stampede from the fence in the direction of the lightning bolt instead. Once I come back into human physical form from the quivering molded jello on a plate I was left in by the lightning and thunder almost on top of us, I myself madly stampede back to the cowboy gate and fiddle with the barbed wire and metal latching with a prayer that it’s got back up before that fenceline could be struck by the next lightning. Pat and Sue both say later, “Well that was a perfect moment–those cattle thought your electric fenceline did it all to them when they got their noses too close! Bet they never go near that again!!”

I flee back to the truck and get to The Stockpond where the folks down there are gamely sitting in the lawn chairs and pouring wine, within a quick jump of their own vehicles of course. Not much in the way of winged creatures ventures along for a drink in front of us what with the gale rising and a lightning-streaked wall of dark cloud towering up and coming towards us from the Sulphur Springs Valley to the East, and I fear that this Summer Stock(pond) Theatre of nightjars, bats and swallows is over for the year, and that these my birder friends will have missed it. We give it a few more minutes, but get religion when a wind blast clears glasses of wine off the tables, knocks over the open Free Range Red Rex Goliath Cabernet Sauvignon $4.97 bottle on the ground, tries to fling the cheese, blows tortilla chips out of the bowls … and lightning sears the air in three of the Six Directions, North, East, and South. When a dust storm obliterates the view beyond the fence on the other side of the pond, and the big drops of rain come to mean real business, Elna and Jimmy mount up in their car and call out from the window, “Outta here before the washes run!” The rest of us get into vehicles with rain hammering on rooves–a sound all of us are in bliss over hearing at last. Bob’s car is closest to hand, and I sit in it watching for a lull in what’s now a deluge and for a break in the near-constant lightning to get across the lot and into my truck without being electrocuted. But–it keeps coming down, and coming down and getting louder, and I realize that maybe this will be the first time I’ll ever have seen washes and arroyos in torrents on a First of Monsoon. “Hey, look at that!”, I call to Bob, and point at an inch deep sheet flood coming out of the bosque and doing more than creeping across the parking area–it is swallowing it–around my truck, and towards Bob’s car. “We better get out of here. I hope Sue makes it to the other side of Hot Springs Canyon!” I cannot wait any longer, there’s another flash and boom as I myself bolt towards the truck and am soaked, but it’s hard then to engage the clutch with legs that have turned again to jello in reaction to such close lightning. But–it all says that now comes (ojala!) a time of green plenty, shimmering meadows of Summer Poppies, grand skies and storms, happy critters, happy people, Nature rejoicing in a special, much celebrated time that belongs to the Borderer and not to the Snow Bird. We drive up The Lane and come to the green metal ranch gate, and to open it and go through I have to steel my nerves and embrace the goodness of getting killed by lightning that could hit that gate or the fence that’s attached to it: this is just a fine way to go. Chaining the gate back in place on its post seems to take forever, but then, the gate is closed–on The Lane, and on Foresummer … […]