The peak of the Rincon and its cliffs and boulders are white and dancing on the eye in the sun, making those evergreen forests on their far heights look so much the darker. A shining white cloud crowns all, itself under a long clean blue sky. Cottonwoods glow yellow below. Doubtless a storm comes: the air is warm, yet has some tang to it, is even salty, and there is a strong waft of change. Caribbean Horseweed on the pastures grows on as if none of this is happening, and even shows fresh flower buds, and on the irrigation hoses are the black spiders of Summer. Canadian Horseweed, presumably more attuned to North America has already turned into seeds or dormant biennial rosettes and thus is well ready for Winter.
American Pipits drop in again–they’ve been elsewhere lately, probably over on the just-germinated seedling alfalfa pasture of our fence-neighbor ranch. Midday 70 degrees, I am still eating lunch with dragonflies.
The last bat before the year’s deep freezes come on flies down the Cascabel Road, ahead of the truck in the dusk
Ravens playfully chase after a Red-tailed Hawk, they’re too smart, too agile, or too revolting in taste for the hawk to bother itself with them I suppose. In the warm morning after a night without a freeze, the little black spiders of Summer are out on their usual perches on the surface of the irrigation hoses, and among them are dark grasshoppers (or crickets?) apparently just hatched and impossibly minute in size.
Autumnal slanting sunrays are caught in everything, light up everything … the broad, high and long avenues of watersprays of the wheel line irrigators made incandescent by them … a large pink dragonfly … the wings of the Pipits … some insect so fast of wing that they look like tiny hovering balls of light, the air over the whole broad pasture is full of them. The ridges piled high toward that lowering Sun are dark mounds, each sharply defined by crests white, shining.
An exquisite Hawk Moth lands on the front of my shirt, and hovering there, shows hind wings of cinnabar. It is caught in a stiff wind that pulls it away, is gone instantly. I wonder if I’ll ever see another. A large Fritillary and Checkerspots come to the pond mud with orange Sulphurs, and this makes for quite a show of sipping butterflies. Ninety-one degrees! Despite that, I am immersed in the notes of American Pipits, the largest number of the birds I’ve ever seen winter-ing in the Borderlands. Wintering?
Dozens of those pipits land around me as I set up the lines to guide for Joel when he soon comes to give another try at cultivating for the winter pasture planting, and a dozen Javelina come to drink at The Cienega there. Russet the Harrier floats by me, with such grace that no one can have helped yelping out like I, “Oh! Oh, oh!” Then all the Meadowlarks fly in, join this wildlife samba rolling down the Pasture around me.
It’s an evening of delightful balminess, a Bahamian 80 degrees at sundown. A Red-tail out there looks like it’s stomping grapes, then flies off with a snake dangling long from its talons, flies low over the pasture and vanishes along with the light into the bosque.
Doves, wave upon wave of them, come flapping loudly and wing-whistling loudly … volleys of 30 or 40 birds at a time, in low over the pasture to the North, come vaulting over the mesquite tree tops. Hundreds–countless–they come, they come, they come, landing among others already rimming the entire pond, two or three at every cow pog full of water. So crowded do they become that some hover and teeter barely above the water out in the middle with bills thrust down to sip like hummers, almost falling in. The air is so full of the loudness of all this, and the whipping around of wings, and the silhouettes of ever more arriving doves, I for a moment can imagine why some people could become unsettled or even feel panic with such a level of wild activity, remember Boris Karloff’s presentation of “Pigeons from Hell” that revisted me in nightmares for most of Third Grade. You know you’re in trouble when they stop cooing.
Sky is music itself–“Chick chack chick! Chick chack chick! Chick chack chick!”, down from the passing Brewer’s Blackbirds … “Sweet sweet sweet sweet”, from the Pipits … “Chick chack chick!” … “Sweet sweet!”
The largest Tarantula Hawk ever comes thirsty to The Stockpond, where there are lots of dragonflies, damselflies and Snout Butterflies today. A relaxed covey of Gambel’s Quail drink, too, and then from the bank behind them most unwelcomingly comes popping up a Cooper’s Hawk, bringing chaos to replace the innocent peace and I can almost hear the hawk let loose a rakish “Bleuh!” just before it snags one of the quail, as if in vampire cape of approaching Halloween.
An owl hoots, in the warm 75 degrees of last light. Poorwill is friendly, not at all put out by the truck in The Lane, bounces its head up and down then rises and with fine acrobatics catches a moth bright in the headlights. We whistle and chirp, one with the other for a while until I wish it a good night’s day, then make a last stop before utter dark at The Stockpond where swallow-like bats are right at its surface taking drinks and moving across like rocks being skipped. As they fly by in zig-zag fashion they seem to flash on and off; they’re very pale, and there are very many of them.
My fingers are frigid (it’s down near freezing), their cells remember the tropics. Later on I get the first complete face full of winter irrigation water, though it’s much warmer than the air that has got up to 40 degrees. Birds have gone back up to good numbers, equalling the lost summer splendor but their colors are more subdued and subtle, their vocals more quiet and discreet, so different from the Neotropicals who now mostly have returned to their sambas and salsas. For the next six months the sparrows will reign, and I go over and over them in the field guides, as I must every year. I’d have difficulty with some of them even if they were right in my hand.
The day warms comfortably, into the 80s, Red-shafted Flickers have come back from whatever local place they’d hidden out in for Summer and a Phainopepla sings out, “prrrrrt!” in The Lane, back from whatever local place it had also hidden out offstage for the Summer. Then comes a huge arrival of Western Meadowlarks, who claim all the pastures for their own. American Pipits overhead, whistling “Sweet!” while in flight, their movement something between a bat and a Vermillion Flycatcher. A bright russet Harrier (which I’d rather forever call “Marsh Hawk”), its rump gleaming like a spotlight, freaks out all the phoebes. A Sparrow Hawk, errrrr, Kestrel, displays some mighty fine colors, and Killdeers (Killdeer?) are bouncing through the gathered piles of pulled mesquite–and still the winter pasture is not prepared, cannot be planted. An impressive number of White-crowned and Chipping sparrows comes to The Stockpond, to join Lazuli Buntings (and the last are these to be seen) bathing in the cow pogs at the edge of the shore.
Small blue butterflies (Azures? Blues?) are visiting the Burroweeds in #3, which don’t have much in the way of blossoms to offer them any more.
Northern Mallards have not been on The Stockpond since early May, but one male in eclipse plumage is there this morning, giving another sign of winter’s steady approach–no Kingbirds today, no Vermillion Flycatchers, and it’s been eleven days since I’ve seen a Vulture, making us even luckier that Brindle the Cow holds on still through her mystery illness, still eating, still drinking, still (at least) trying to keep up with the herd.
Pipits have been passing overhead for a week, and today they at last suddenly turn downwards in descending curves, and land on the ground all around me.
Snipes are a good way out on The Stockpond, silhouettes with perfect reflections probing the mud, one freezes in a camouflage crouch even in such obvious view as I walk from one truck to the other past them, and I drive out to the herd.
Air is cool if not cold, the dust I kick up hangs in deep layers over green grass sparkling with dew. While my attention has fully to be on such things as a snaky steer that doubtless is fixing to escape the weaning enclosure, I catch sight of a lowering flock of birds whose flight has a familiar and peculiar gait to it, giving me to think that Western Meadowlarks have arrived to decorate our pastures for the Winter with their flash of yellow, flash of white, their fluting and their whistling. There is not time to drift over the pastures with them.
In the afternoon cooler even than yesterday’s, once that snaky steer gets religion and he comes to be resigned to a new order, “Sweet sweet! Sweet sweet!” notes fall to Earth from that highest, wholly blue sky, and settle like feathers in pendulum-drift down to the cattle’s ears and mine: American Pipits, invisible they are so high, but announcing their own return from some alpine meadow.
A drive around the edge of a pasture deep in grass on my way to see if that 1,000 pound steer had settled in with the two heifers and younger steer also being fenced weaned, the truck scares into the air in front of it whirling and clicking Red-winged Grasshoppers–the largest number yet of this brilliant insect that is the long and lingering Summer itself. But no, Summer is indeed ending: the Blue Grosbeak in its immature browns I see today is to be the last, as will be that Western Kingbird.
Black-chinned Hummingbirds are in their spectacular mating aerial dances at El Potrero. As they swing up and down on the wing they purr and putt, the quavering sounds grow louder and dimmer with the swing of the bird on its pendulum course, closer and then away and back again. Did the animation folks who created the Jetsons in the 1960s use this for the sound effect of the futuristic personal flying cars? No sightings or sounds of these hummers at Mason’s, either.
There is appearing a pattern here, of something that may have been happening with every spring, perhaps in reverse every autumn: the returning birds come north in their waves, and eddy and flow around (or over) places that take a little waiting for them to become more comfortable for them. El Potrero is warmer, more temperate than the Mason Pastures–certainly the thermometer readings show this and so singing and courting and avian housekeeping appear to start earlier those miles north at El Potrero. Do more birds come along from their wintering grounds at the right moment to occupy Mason’s areas directly, or are they already present somewhere east, west, north and they swirl on around back to Mason’s when conditions please? The number of species that are showing evidence of this keeps growing–something at least interesting is going on, but … what?
Winter seems about gone though of course we could (and probably will) have a couple snows yet on the higher country above us, and mornings that’ll make us grumble, “Oh this never happens!”, but yes, it always does happen. A lot of wintering birds appeared at Mason’s sparingly or not at all and now their season is winding down–they didn’t come far enough south because of global warming? Winter of 2011-2012 brought great and beautiful flocks of Lark Buntings to us; this year they appeared on only a couple of occasions and in much smaller numbers. Winter before last, often Western Bluebirds would alight all along the wheel line pipes and spokes around me, truly a glittering show and I’d hear their musical “phew! phheww!” overhead, and there were the many Mountain Bluebirds visiting and landing mostly on the open ground, but not a single of the latter species came along this winter. Both bluebird species can be pretty irregular, but the more to be expected flocks of American Pipit didn’t come this year to the irrigated grass, either, though I saw and heard a very few individuals–and no longspurs at all. Long before this time last year Tree Swallow and Violet-green Swallow were passing over our planted grass, but neither of these species has come through yet in 2013. With climate shifting northwards, what might the summer hold for birds on the place? What “Mexican” species might appear?