Mockingbird chases a Brown-headed Cowbird out of that big nesting mesquite–as with Raven, all the way across #2 Pasture, and out of sight.
The ryegrass of the Winter Pasture (a quaint term! it’s 102 degrees …) is producing its countless flower spikes, and green grain too, and those pastures are alive with Lesser Goldfinches giving out their lemon twist chitterings, and bright House Finches feasting on the plants of the small grains.
A Chihuahuan Raven flies down The Lane, low and just in front of the windshield of the slowly moving Silverado: what a great view of prowess airborne! but the bird is up to no good at least from the point of view of other species now frantically planning for the families that will come in with the time of plenty that they and I hope is on its way. Pow, a Kingbird bonks Raven on its crown, the blow having no effect on the grace and intention of its flight, Raven without loss of the rowing of its wings can still forward navigate the air of The Lane with its head straight up in the air at right angle to its body, jabbing those big black mandibles at the Kingbird. Pow, a Mockingbird bonks Raven on its crown, Raven looks up in defiance again and glares menacingly at Mockingbird, while it still rows its wings and doesn’t in the least wobble … it stabs the weapon of its bill into the air but misses this second and also most agile bird who “ain’t nothin’ but business”. All three crash through the wall of mesquite leaves and out of sight while other birds throw themselves into a fray now invisible inside the tree … seconds later Raven shoots out of the large and very dense mesquite, a nestling dangling from its bill, the Mockingbird in lightning, angry pursuit, the two birds and the doomed baby disappear over a far pasture with it seems the whole bird neighborhood in uproar behind them.
A single Vesper Sparrow is still here! Bob helps me determine that there are no records of the bird in the first week of June in southern Arizona. “Global Weirding”, I suppose.
We were sittin’ round the ranch house some twenty
hands or more
most of us Americans but a few from Arkansas
one Dutchman from the fatherland one Johnny Bull
a Cornishman from Cornwall all men of different creeds
they were a sittin’ an’ a arguin’ busy as a hill of ants
how they’d get rid of the money they had buried in their
that they’d made by hard cow punching work all
the year around
from sunup until sundown an’ a sleepin’ on the ground
where at night the polecat saunters round the chuckbox
and in passing by your hot roll gives your head a friend-
where the rattlesnake lies dormant his fangs are like
’twas with them that I attended The Cowboy’s New
–Mark Chisholm, pre 1908, “The Cowboys New Years Dance”
Big Mahogany Ants are in wild and mad, kettle-a-boiling wakefulness at their wide hole–something about which I’m not thinking I needed to have a care (it is Winter, right?) when I open the truck door and drop a foot onto the ground in The Lane where I seek out the first bird of an informal First Day of 2014 bird count, a Brewer’s Sparrow. The ants, which aren’t amused by my presence, are sending out gatherers on this warm, sunny, blue spectacle of a New Year’s morning. I will keep chores to a minimum today, only check over the herd and water these pastures for neither kine nor grass have a horse in my race of trying to relax as best the day allow or quietly reflect on this year beginning and last year seamlessly gone. Saltweed splashes its tiny green and purple seedlings under a fence.
Mesquite rows full of singing Lark Sparrows …
Chipping Sparrows …
Say’s and Black phoebes …
Sparrows uncountable, flying up in masses, I turn the truck around to have the sun positioned so they’ll show better–most are Vespers and Larks, but I may suppose Savannahs and Lincolns and Songs are among them …
Western Meadowlarks …
White-crowned Sparrows, abundant in thicker edges …
Female Ladder-backed Woodpecker …
Sixty or so Red-winged Blackbirds in those splendidly understated winter clothes of theirs, crowning a lone wide-spreading mesquite …
Red-tailed Hawk …
Flicker, red-shafted …
Mourning Dove …
Brightest of red House Finches, knocked off his perch by a male Phainopepla with drama and flourish; I have for a very long time seen precious few of these Silky Flycatchers and their almost impossible elegance …
Gray Flycatcher …
Chihuahuan Raven …
Until a breeze springs up from the North when Sun brushes down on the ridge of the grand Rincon I am comfortable without a jacket through a day that itself brushes 70 degrees. Bugs are aloft, gleam in the last rays and many meet their end as a Gray Flycatcher stokes its belly with them to make the freezing night pass the more bearably.
The vibrant blue sky of morning turns to a limp gray, and a strange light like that of a solar eclipse comes over everything: a dust storm, haboob, tormenta de polvo. The Galiuros fade into ghosts, their peaks into wraiths there and not there. Ravens knew that the aerial surf was up and where they’d catch righteous waves, and 50 of them come to roll in the wind and clamor out their fun. Were they still-photographed, the dozens in the flock would look like a Liszt musical score, if filmed as a motion picture would look like a symphony playing a wild rhapsody, with how the birds move in great wheels, always some to be seen rising, always others falling, others weaving together the whole.
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.
A False Dawn, in wintry silence on The Ridge.
One can forget that the Mallard, that every-duck, is also one of the most beautiful of waterfowl. This morning an incredibly handsome male is palling around with a little Teal on The Stockpond water; I wonder if that one in eclipse plumage of four days ago is this one, now come into its own with a brand new, very natty courting outfit.
Joel gives a go at rototilling a stretch of mesquite-cleared pasture, to see if it’s moist enough to receive the tines deeply enough, but it’s not and more watering will have to be done. I watch the days go on, and the optimum window for winter graze planting slowly being closed. Fifty or more Chihuahuan Ravens materialize from nowhere, descend on that plot, and look it over hoping to find our oats and barley, only they don’t realize we haven’t planted any yet. The Ravens know we do this every year and can read the sign that will be hung out for the easy feast … they will have their pound of seed, and that must be worked into our sowing rate!
Cooper’s Hawks are terrorizing both ponds, thrilled with the constant arrival of more thirsty birds out of the North. Migrant “traps”, all right! I know not to bother trying to find anything around them if those Cooper’s are about.
Vermillion Flycatcher numbers are up again, all immatures, but no Kingbirds to be seen now for a couple of days. Tail-pumping Gray Flycatchers are looking green and not their namesake color, in their fresh Fall plumage.
Checkerspot Butterflies are on that #3 Pasture Burroweed, even though the crowns of the plants are offering mostly fluffy seed heads to the wind, and hardly any nectar to insects. There is much coupling of grasshoppers … scandal!
The pressure on the irrigation pump seems a bit low, and I wonder if the fix we did on the deep underground main in #4 has maintained its seal. The shaft down to the break was left unfilled so that it all could be easily watched for a while, but instead of water down there (and I’m happy about that) what I do find to my alarm is a hole-bottom filled with Box Turtles that had fallen in and couldn’t get back out. They are all very much alive and don’t seem worse for their ordeal, and they scurry smartly off in every direction when they’re got out of there. That shaft will be filled in but pronto!
Lots of Devil’s Claw in that overgrown field that we don’t irrigate, the plants luxuriated in the wonderful, now gone Monsoon. Their fruits are everywhere, dangling and green still (and looking like some exotic vegetable only to be found in the trendiest of farmer’s markets) or brown and dried, and scattered about …
Dusk comes on, a pair of Peregrine Falcons tussle with each other in the air over the roof of the truck while I wait at the pump at The Stockpond for it to use up the last of the lower electric rate minutes of the day. I turn it off, and make the rounds of emptying waterlines, a chore of real winter: it is going to freeze tonight, though I can’t tell how deeply and can’t chance swelling ice breaking the fabric of the hoses. It is almost dark when the last of that work is done, and the Mourning Doves are sailing in from all sides to drink at The Cienega. In the Bottomlands moves a cold like the breathed presence of a malevolant spirit by whom Summer has been overpowered, is helpless–taken–but such brutality will never keep Summer down, not in these Spanish Borderlands.
Wind blowing through the night had me closing windows and shivering, the thermometer at 52 … news out of Phoenix just before sunrise announces it has dropped below 70 there (69 degrees! they must be celebrating), and that Flagstaff sits at 32, with a “freeze warning” in effect. Our pearly dawn sounds with the notes of Phoebes, the whispering of Vesper Sparrows, Raven chortles.
I walk through the weedy parts of the pastures, through patches of dried lanterns of Husk Tomatoes, my nose running now not from pollen but from cold, or at least what we can come to think of as that. The big ants scattered over their circles stand there in suspended animation. Mexican General grasshoppers clasp hard to the tips of amaranths, they are so cold and in their own suspended animation that they give no reaction if poinked with a finger. Summer birds, of which there are still a number around, are lying low til the warmth comes in and the temperature is raised almost another forty degrees in midafternoon. House Wrens are out, though, and a pair call from their own amaranth tops.
Sparrows are arriving, still more birds that need time to identify than can’t be spared by a work day. I check the Burroweed in #3 Pasture for things more easily nailed down, and there I find that fluttering jewel, a Great Purple Hairstreak butterfly. Scattered through that pasture now are the blooms of a pretty Composite, its flowers tiny, bright blue. A Western Wood Peewee is on the fence, the same bird of the day before yesterday at The Stockpond, or another one passing on south–way, way south–and another flycatcher relative, the Ash-throated, flashes out of the larger mesquites. That bird should’ve been long gone by now, maybe it is the last?
A Poorwill-sung dawn, with a warmth that has Chris E., James C. and I on the early side saddling up the horses we’ll ride today on range–Chris on my Loompy, James on his Clu, and I on Pat’s Nimby. It will be in the 90s before we turn back on the trail home to El Potrero, the Barrel Cactus are still in their center-crown, late summer orange-petalled splendor, and of all the astonishing things that give one to know that Summer doesn’t let go, we find a Saguaro still in bloom. We pick our way carefully down a long rocky slope from a saddle between ridges, and come down into a broad, white sand bottom and when I nudge Nimby up that canyon to continue our ride just a bit further in the direction away from home, that horse I’m sitting decides to go into a run–backwards, towards home where he thought it was more reasonable to be going. Angry he didn’t get his way with a rider with whom he had almost no experience? Did he see a Jackrabbit, which can make him jump so that I’ve come to call them “Jack(theRipper)rabbits” or “Death Bunnies” as Pat calls them? A couple of hard bucks quickly following one on the other and my left foot is lost from the stirrup as the scenery and time fly past me only now in reverse … I’m still somehow upright in the saddle when his croup knows a sudden and violent comeuppance as we hit a deep wall of Catclaw trees and the sharp bank of the canyon bottom they’re growing against. He rears, tumbles, all is dust and billows of shaken-loose acacia leaflets, then I re-materialize out of that bronc-made haboob among splintering thorny branches and more rising dust, sitting in the arroyo sand with my legs spread out as wide as they were on either side of his flanks only a few calm, but very long-ago moments before. I’ve come to a standstill; Nimby has not. His is a body tending to stay in motion … his be-hind thud-lands between my far spread legs as he, continuing backwards, trips over a low horizontal branch but somehow even though it is Friday the 13th the horse hasn’t crushed me yet. Up he rises again, and up and up, towering into the sky or so it looks from my vantage point where I’m still trapped at his rear and flattened out on the ground. I concentrate on getting my right foot from the off-side stirrup, don’t know why it’s still stuck in there, but then every shred of my being comes welded to the vision of a black horse with head straight up, pawing into the empty air as if swimming for his life, he balancing there like that for a slowed-down second or two. The hands on my pocket watch stand still while he does. I stare up the line of his backbone–it’s not a question of whether he’ll topple, but which way will he topple. Something keeps me from getting out from behind him, maybe I’m frozen there in acceptance of my fate: if he comes back all the way it will split me right up through my middle, from stem-to-sternum, lengthwise, with saddle horn sunk into my chest as if I were a vampire. When for half a second that backbone of his begins tottering my way my thought is simple and resigned: “I’m about to be in the dark.” I’m still unhurt I think, but also still stuck, I scream out a long death wail, I know the last noise I might ever make and it’s from a place deeper in my soul than any where I’d ever brought anything up from or that I’d ever known was there to plumb. I guess there will be no more entries made in the nature journal. The scream startles him and he sways forward a bit, just enough that when he does come backwards it is now to the side, and all that wild horseflesh with its four flailing limbs plows into the sweet soft sand a little ways off my left shoulder. I don’t know how he misses me, he rolls away from me, jumps up, and is gone from my sight behind, down the canyon and I presume, home the way he wanted to go the whole time. My regular horse, Loompy, who together with Chris on his back has been watching, must have thought, “God, what a display. Tsk, tsk, tsk.” I wonder what rule of riding, or knowledge of horses I’m still ignorant of, has played a part in bringing about this wreck.
I live. No broken bones that I can feel, and my organs seem to be left whole, too. My spurs are shoved deeply in the sand, but I totter upwards myself and turn to see the horse not far off at all. He’s running in circles trying to get away from a wide Catclaw branch that’s deeply tangled in his tail and whose thorny twigs are poking the insides of both his legs … I give silent thanks when I see his reins didn’t break off, so I grab them but he keeps spinning away from me as I try to reach back for the branch that appears to be hopelessly knotted into his long tail. Finally I can grab the thick, woody end of that branch and yank hard, and the moment Nimby knows it’s gone he comes to a standstill. Nothing appears wrong with him, though myself I’m already feeling like I’ve been rear-ended at a stoplight with my head having popped out a back windshield; I turn him up-canyon and away from home, and with a laughably painful challenge I mount, and then as if not much happened we continue on our way, go to check whether the watergap fence at Saguaro Juniper’s border has remained intact through the flash floods of this Monsoon. “Do you compete in the rodeo?”, a woman once asked me. “No Ma’am, not if I can help it. That’s the kind of thing we pray at dawn Monday morning won’t happen this week, and on Saturday night following give thanks hadn’t …” […]
The morning excitement worn off, I go back to Mason’s to dig mesquite in the to-be winter pasture, and in the golden light of late Summer. There’s a pair of Mexican Mallard on The Stockpond and four Teal, and then I spot a huge turtle–probably ten inches across its shell–sitting on top a rock a bit off the mud bank out in the water. Trying to sneak up on it for a better look is useless, what with those ducks taking wing in an explosion and I am distracted by the splendor of those Teal spinning over me, turning to show blue shoulders, turning then to show their white underwings with black fore-edge. The turtle, which I’m never able to identify as anything native, is gone. How did it get there? I’m never to see it again, either.
Out where I head to start pulling mesquite, a pair of Chihuahuan Ravens are standing aside a cow manure pile, one bird on watch, the other picking apart the poop chunks and as I approach, the one not at work lets out an obvious warning, “Cheese it! The cops!”, and they both fly off squawling. This would not be the last time I’d find the birds doing this, for as long as the herd vacuums up mesquite pods, and shoot the now-shucked beans out their back ends, Ravens will come to pull out those beans the cattle kind have so nicely prepared, and gobble them down–all the fewer seedlings for us to contend with later! There is a reprise of White-lined Sphinx Moth larvae, now scattered over the grasses and larger than any that’ve come before, but I don’t see Ravens going for them.
A flycatcher I might take for an Ash-throated (which species has been strangely sparse here this year), comes for a few moments into the big mesquite edge, just long enough for me to end up thinking there was something … different about it. A Dusky-capped, down from the mountains and thence south far into Mexico, or migrating down from a bit further north in Arizona?
“No, no, it’s Summer!”, chatter and sass the Bell’s Vireos in the River bosque and in The Lane, as they will do every day for the rest of September.
Predatory Stink Bugs (now there’s a righteous name for an insect!), midnight blue and marked with bright red diamond-shapes, are on the bermudagrass doing what they do best, stalking. Red-winged Grasshoppers are in mating dance again …
Where this year’s winter pasture is to be sown, Bob E. and I clear mesquite in the morning of a day that will reach 98 degrees, and is sultry still from the rain of a couple days ago. We are getting all as ready for the Marsh Wrens as we are for our cattle.
Families of Chihuahuan Raven are joining up, and of a sudden are forming large flocks.
Butterfly numbers and variety are increasing in their slow way this season, but it still seems they’ve been decimated by that most bitter of cold spells last winter or by the drought of the last year, or both. A Checkerspot is here or there, or a Metalmark here or there–someday I’ll apply my mind to studying the tricky differences among the species but then by the time such leisure comes my way there’ll be no mind left to apply to anything much. Hairstreaks … Blues … Azures … Tailed-blues … doubtless I’m seeing a few of all of these, maybe a single specimen of a species in a whole springtime, or masses of one or two others teasing the eye like a box of ping-pong balls upended and bouncing crazily all over the place so that the eye can alight on no detail. They’re all silvery to blue, or blue to silvery, some with copper sheen, some with exquisite, complex tails so tiny they can hardly be seen. A species that in goodly numbers rises in eddies and swirls from the mud of The Stockpond’s edge is finely striped below (but no tails), and has a pair of round eyes on the edge of each hindwing. One is being tame enough that it doesn’t take flight and allows a very close approach … isn’t that nice of it? As I enjoy this rare chance to see these beautiful markings, it sinks in on me that something is sunk in on the butterfly: stabbed into its tiny abdomen are the fangs of a black spider who apparently hangs out here where the buffet will come to it.
A “small” Mexican Tarantula Hawk, bright cobalt, shining, as gloriously beautiful as it is baleful, zooms past us over the water, the first blue Pepsis of the summer. Tarantulas do come to these banks, but this wasp was probably looking more for a drink than for a spider buffet it could leave for its offspring. So many insect and arachnid chisels and straws and harpoons! The first mosquito of the year shoves hers into my earlobe.
From all the branches along The Lane, from the lone and handsome large mesquite in #1 Pasture, from the bosque, from the River bank, from the mesquites growing scattered in the old alley running down to The River, come to my ears nestlings cheeping and peeping, some softly, some wildly and demandingly, and the frantic coming and going of tireless parent birds catches my eye. Flycatchers and warblers, kingbirds–the close approach of an ever-hopeful raven doesn’t amuse the kingbirds, and I more than once see a huge black silhouette flying off grouchily with Daddy Kingbird in hot “basta ya!” pursuit, trying to bean ol’ Raven on the head with a sharp bill … who is to decide which most deserves to be nourished, which will be nourishment? […]